German police raid homes of 36 people over hate postings

BERLIN • In a coordinated campaign across 14 states, German police have raided the homes of 36 people accused of hateful postings over social media, including threats, coercion and incitement to racism.

Most of the raids concerned politically motivated right-wing incitement, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office, whose officers conducted home searches and interrogations on Tuesday.

But the raids also targeted two people accused of left-wing extremist content, as well as one person accused of making threats or harassment based on someone's sexual orientation. "The high incidence of punishable hate posting shows a need for police action," Mr Holger Muench, president of the Federal Criminal Police Office, said in a statement. "Our free society must not allow a climate of fear, threat, criminal violence and violence either on the street or on the Internet."

The raids come as Germans are debating the draft of a new social media law aimed at cracking down on hate speech, a measure that an array of experts said was unconstitutional at a parliamentary hearing on Monday.

The measure championed by Justice Minister Heiko Maas for passage this month would fine Facebook, Twitter and other outlets up to €50 million (S$77.5 million) if they failed to remove hate speech and other forms of illegal content.

Under German law, social media users are subject to a range of punishments for posting illegal material, including a prison sentence of up to five years for inciting racial hatred.

Under the draft statute, networks must offer a readily available complaint process for posts that may amount to threats, hate speech, defamation or incitement to commit a crime, among other offences. Social media outlets would have 24 hours to delete "obviously criminal content" and a week to decide on more ambiguous cases.

According to a recent government study, Facebook deleted just 39 per cent of illegal hate speech within 24 hours in January and February despite signing a code of conduct in 2015 pledging to meet this standard. Twitter deleted just 1 per cent.

But even as Mr Maas and his allies advocate parliamentary approval, eight of 10 experts who testified at Monday's parliamentary hearing said the law would not withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Dr Bernd Holznagel, a professor at the University of Munster and one of the participating experts, pointed to two constitutional violations related to freedom of speech: the statute gives companies incentives to remove content, and it lacks a procedure for users to appeal removals.

Other experts expressed concerns that the law would vest private companies with too much policing responsibility.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2017, with the headline 'German police raid homes of 36 people over hate postings'. Print Edition | Subscribe