Germany warns of heavy fines in bid to stop hate speech, fake news

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet approved the tough measure after assessing that companies such as Twitter and Facebook were not doing enough to erase content that ran afoul of German law.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet approved the tough measure after assessing that companies such as Twitter and Facebook were not doing enough to erase content that ran afoul of German law. PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN • Germany yesterday took the European lead in cracking down on hate speech and fake news, threatening social media giants with fines of up to €50 million (S$75 million) if they fail to remove offensive posts promptly.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's Cabinet approved the tough measure after assessing that companies such as Twitter and Facebook were not doing enough to erase content that ran afoul of German law.

"Hate crimes that are not effectively combated and prosecuted pose a great danger to the peaceful cohesion of a free, open and democratic society," Dr Merkel's government said in a statement.

Since the arrival of around one million asylum seekers in Germany from 2015, the volume of xenophobic hate speech has exploded online.

Alarmed by the incendiary nature of the posts, the government has repeatedly warned the online behemoths to take action to better police content on their networks.

The Internet companies had pledged in 2015 to examine and remove within 24 hours any hateful comments, but in a recent report tracking progress on this front, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said that not enough had been done.

Mr Maas said Twitter took down only 1 per cent, and Facebook 39 per cent, of the content reported by users that was deemed to flout Germany's anti-hate speech laws.

Google's YouTube video-sharing platform fared far better, with a rate of 90 per cent, according to a government study cited by the minister.

Beyond hate speech and fake news, the draft legislation also covers other illegal content, including child pornography and terrorism- related activity.

The companies would have 24 hours to remove any posts that openly violate German law after they are flagged by users.

Other offensive content would have to be deleted within seven days after it is reported and reviewed.

Executives of the social media groups also risk being slapped with individual fines of up to €5 million in the case of non-compliance.

Under German law, Holocaust denial, incitement of hatred and racist speech are illegal.

But critics warned that the proposed law could stifle freedom of expression. Ms Renate Kuenast, an MP with the opposition Greens, said the fines were "almost an invitation to not just erase real insults, but to wipe out almost everything for the sake of playing it safe".

Facebook said that it was examining the proposed rule, but stressed that it has heavily invested in boosting the resources of its content review team.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Government said on Monday that it was reviewing how to combat fake news as current laws are limited in tackling the issue.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline 'Germany warns of heavy fines in bid to stop hate speech, fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe