Germany Tackles Fake News With A Tough Law

Facebook said the contentious bill would force companies, rather than judges, to decide what is illegal content

German Chancellor Angela Merkel — REUTERS
Apr 06, 2017 at 6:36 AM ET

Germany has proposed a bill that would fine social media companies up to 50 million euros ($53 million) if they fail to give users the option to complain about hate speech and fake news, or refuse to remove illegal content.

The bill, advanced by Chancellor Angela Merkel, would also force Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to remove content flagged as child pornography or incitement to terrorism. Corporate officials could be subject to fines reaching 5 million euros. If passed by parliament, the measures would be the most stringent regulation Facebook faces in any country of operation.

“Social-network providers are responsible when their platforms are misused to propagate hate crimes and fake news,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a prepared statement. “Just like on the streets, there is also no room for criminal incitement on social networks.”

He added that measures to combat hate speech and fake news will ultimately need to be handled by all of the European Union in order to be effective.

The bill will be a test for freedom of speech as tech giants struggle to maintain a borderless community while allowing hate speech, terrorist propaganda and fake news to flourish on their sites in defiance of national laws.

A recent Justice Ministry survey found that Twitter deletes “almost none” of the criminal content posted on its servers. Facebook deletes around 50 percent and YouTube 90 percent, it found.

“My fear, and that of many others, is that in the end [the bill] will limit freedom of opinion because it will simply become delete, delete, delete,” said Green Party legal expert Renate Kunast on the morning show Morgenmagazin.

“In principle,” the approach isn’t wrong, Kunast said. But she described the bill as “a rush job” involving such heavy fines for non-compliant companies that it was “almost an invitation to not only delete real insults, but everything for safety’s sake.”

The bill is the latest in a long-simmering debate over the responsibility of social media sites which have contended that it is not their role to police content. Many critics also argue that such regulations could pave the way for governments to gain control over the internet by restricting individuals’ digital activities.

Germany, where Merkel is facing re-election for her fourth term and whose party is seen as the last remaining bastion of European liberalism, anti-hate speech laws are far more stringent than those in the United States. In Germany, it is illegal to promote Nazi ideology or to deny the Holocaust, and the state has invoked the incitement to hatred clause of German criminal code to convict far-right leaders that use hate speech against refugees. A conviction carries three months to five years of prison time.

A Facebook statement said that the company is “working very hard to remove illegal content from our platform,” but expressed concern that the new legislation “would force private companies instead of courts to decide which content is illegal in Germany.”

Maas said that Merkel’s coalition aims to adopt the law before German elections on September 27, the third in a string of pivotal European elections in which ultra-nationalist, far-right movements have made an unprecedented showing.

In the wake of the upset win of Donald Trump in the United States, Facebook and other companies have announced that they are experimenting with new ways to combat the barrage of fake news. Echoing the U.S. election, Germany has seen a number of fake news stories flourishing online.

Even Germany’s biggest selling newspaper Bild published a fictitious story in February claiming that a “mob of Arab men” sexually assaulted women in a Frankfurt restaurant. By the time it issued a retraction and apology, the story had already taken on its own life online. Another famous case involved a Syrian refugee, Anas Modamani, who took a selfie with Merkel in 2015 and was later falsely linked on social media to terrorist organizations following the terror attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. Modamani sued Facebook, but lost in court, which ruled that it was not Facebook’s role to proactively seek out and delete defamatory posts since the social media giant was “neither a perpetrator or participant in the smears”.

In a statement released in January, Facebook said that it will work with the fact-checking organization Correctiv to identify and flag fake news stories ahead of Germany’s elections. It has developed a news algorithm will move those deemed fake to lower down on users’ news feed. They will mark stories classified as “disputed,” with an explanation of why; and will send users a warning if they try to share it.

“We have made it impossible for spammers to fake websites. We will also be more proactive in enforcing our existing policies. It is important to us that posts and news posted on Facebook are reliable,” the statement said.