In 2017, the country enacted one of the world’s toughest laws against online hate speech. It requires Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to remove illegal comments, pictures or videos within 24 hours of being notified about them or risk fines of up to 50 million euros, or $59 million. Supporters hailed it as a watershed moment for internet regulation and a model for other countries. But an influx of hate speech and harassment in the run-up to the German election, in which the country will choose a new leader to replace Angela Merkel, its longtime chancellor, has exposed some of the law’s weaknesses…
Some critics of the law say it is too weak, with limited enforcement and oversight. They also maintain that many forms of abuse are deemed legal by the platforms, such as certain kinds of harassment of women and public officials. And when companies do remove illegal material, critics say, they often do not alert the authorities or share information about the posts, making prosecutions of the people publishing the material far more difficult. Another loophole, they say, is that smaller platforms like the messaging app Telegram, popular among far-right groups, are not subject to the law. Free-expression groups criticize the law on other grounds. They argue that the law should be abolished not only because it fails to protect victims of online abuse and harassment, but also because it sets a dangerous precedent for government censorship of the internet.
To address concerns that companies were not alerting the authorities to illegal posts, German policymakers this year passed amendments to the law. They require Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to turn over data to the police about accounts that post material that German law would consider illegal speech. The Justice Ministry was also given more powers to enforce the law… Facebook and Google have filed a legal challenge to block the new rules, arguing that providing the police with personal information about users violates their privacy.
An activist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Berlin tells the Times the law could encourage companies to remove offensive-but-legal speech. And Twitter shared a statement with additional concerns. “Threats, abusive content and harassment all have the potential to silence individuals. However, regulation and legislation such as this also has the potential to chill free speech by emboldening regimes around the world to legislate as a way to stifle dissent and legitimate speech.”
Yet Germany’s experience may ultimately influence policy across Europe, the Times points out, since German officials “are playing a key role in drafting one of the world’s most anticipated new internet regulations, a European Union law called the Digital Services Act, which will require Facebook and other online platforms to do more to address the vitriol, misinformation and illicit content on their sites.”
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