Germany’s online hate speech law slammed by opposition, Commission

The amendment to the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) claims to strengthen user rights and crack down on online hate speech.

Civil rights activists and opposition politicians have slammed a recently approved amendment to Germany’s law regulating online communications, saying it encroaches on freedom of expression and fragments the European legal space. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Tabled by the German government and approved by parliament on Thursday (6 May), the amendment to the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) claims to strengthen user rights and crack down on online hate speech.

The government says the amendment improves the 2017 law by expanding transparency obligations for social media companies and other online actors, improved user friendliness and regulated researchers’ access to social media data.

“Anyone who is threatened or insulted online must be able to report it simply and without complications,” said German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht.

Hansjörg Durz, deputy chair of the German parliament’s Digital Agenda Committee, said the amendment improved enforcement and increased transparency.

Previously amended in 2020, the NetzDG forces online platforms with more than 2 million users registered in Germany, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube, to check their platforms for hateful posts and delete them if necessary.

The controversial law attempts to strike a balance between curbing online hate speech and protecting civil liberties. However, civil rights activists say the amendment curbs freedom of expression, while opposition parties slammed it either for not going far enough or going too far.

Criticism from the opposition

The Green party called for a stronger fight against deliberate false reporting and to have an obligation for wrongly removed content to be restored. The Greens also called for an examination of whether messaging services like Whatsapp or Telegram should fall within the scope of the NetzDG so as to ensure a comprehensive check for hate crimes online.

The liberal FDP party, which has long been the law’s most vocal critic, demanded it be immediately repealed. Writing on Twitter, the party’s digital policy spokesman Manuel Höferlin said the law endangered freedom of expression and lacked practical value.

“High time to bury the NetzDG in the bad-idea graveyard of failed laws,” he said.

Meanwhile FDP lawmaker Mario Brandenburg told Netzpolitik the government was pursuing a “solo approach” rather than “seeking a European solution”.

The criticism comes after two of the party’s lawmakers filed a lawsuit against the NetzDG when it first came into force in 2017, claiming the law violated the freedom of opinion and media freedom enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Germany is not alone

While the German government is pushing ahead with the regulation of online platforms, negotiations on the Digital Services Act (DSA) are in full swing at the EU level.

The DSA is set to regulate the handling of illegal content online, competing in Germany with the NetzDG.

The Commission’s legislative proposal on the DSA was published last December and attempts to harmonise the patchwork of different national laws regulating internet giants, seeking an uniform legal framework for the cross-border online sphere.

In March, the European Parliament also warned in a report against the risks of legal fragmentation and the resulting legal barriers for digital services. Germany’s NetzDG was mentioned in the document as an example of problematic unilateral approaches within the bloc.

However, France and Austria have also already moved forward with their own legislative initiatives to tackle hate speech. The Commission has in response urged member states to focus more on the DSA rather than go their own legislative way.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi and Josie Le Blond]

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