Delete hateful posts or face $79m fine: Berlin

German MPs approve plan to penalise social media firms after surge in hate speech online

BERLIN • The German Parliament approved a plan yesterday to fine social media networks up to €50 million (S$78.6 million) if they fail to remove hateful postings promptly, despite concerns the law could limit free expression.

Berlin took the measure, one of the toughest in the world, after a surge in racist and incendiary speech online, particularly since the arrival of around one million asylum-seekers since 2015.

Germany has some of the world's toughest laws covering defamation, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, with prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities. But few online cases are prosecuted.

Critics warned that the prohibitive fines would stifle legitimate free speech by prompting online giants like Twitter and Facebook to excessively delete and censor posts as a precaution.

The law gives social media networks 24 hours to delete or block obviously criminal content and seven days to deal with less clear-cut cases, with an obligation to report back to the person who filed the complaint about how they handled the case.

Failure to comply could see a company fined up to €50 million, and the company's chief representative in Germany fined up to €5 million.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany, in a statement, hailed the law as "the logical next step for effectively tackling hate speech since all voluntary agreements with the platform providers have been virtually unsuccessful".

German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the measure to "end the Internet law of the jungle" was long overdue and dismissed suggestions it would infringe freedom of speech.

The issue has taken on more urgency amid concerns in Germany that proliferating fake news and racist content could sway public opinion in the run-up to a national election due on Sept 24.

But organisations representing digital firms, consumers and journalists have accused the government of rushing a law through Parliament.

Facebook, which has 29 million active users in Germany - more than a third of the total population - has said it is working hard to remove illegal content, deleting 3,500 posts per week in Germany in the past two months. "This law, as it stands now, will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem," a spokesman said, adding that Facebook did not think it had been consulted enough.

Facebook noted that in May, it had announced plans to add an extra 3,000 workers around the world over the next year to monitor reports of inappropriate material, in addition to 4,500 people already reviewing posts.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2017, with the headline 'Delete hateful posts or face $79m fine: Berlin'. Print Edition | Subscribe