Germany takes firm action against hate speech in social media

Published: 12 February 2018

Effective since 1 January this year, the German law against hate speech urges social media to take more determined and faster action against hate speech published on their platforms. Even in the preparatory phase, the opponents to the legislation expressed their concern that in fear of high penalties, private companies would likely remove problematic content without thorough reasons and thereby curtail freedom of speech. Ever since the enactment of the law, this fear seems to have been confirmed.

In October 2017 the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz law (NetzDG) enacted in Germany that urges social media platforms with over 2 million users to act faster and review and remove any hate speech from their sites within 24 hours. Any business failing to comply with this regulation will face record high fines up to EUR 50 million. The single-day deadline applies to clearly infringing content but in more complex cases social media companies have 7 days to take action. The entities falling under the scope of the law includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Google. The months after the introduction of the law were about preparations during which time the affected platforms created special reporting interfaces and forms, and the law only went into effect on 1 January. Facebook, for instance, published the changes related to the law here:

The critiques of NetzDG primarily stressed that the law violates the freedom of speech and transfers too much power to social media businesses in a topic that is very sensitive both in terms of legal and social aspects. It is also feared that in order to avoid severe fines, social media businesses will remove any questionable post even if they lack full proof of it constituting hate speech.

As a result of the regulation often quoted as the ‘censorship law’ by its critiques, Twitter began to delete or suspend problematic German posts and profiles in January. One of the victims of this process was the profile of a German neo-Nazi politician who called Muslims in one of his tweets ‘barbaric hordes’ and called attention to the responsibility of the police. The profile was blocked and the account of Titanic, a satiric magazine caricaturing the politician, was also suspended (although the latter is now available). Based on the foregoing, the concerns of those opposing the law seem to be verified; the question is whether this ‘blocking wave’ continues in the long run.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has most recently said that in light of the practical consequences of the law some amendments may be enacted; however, she remained resolute that this topic calls for some kind of regulation.