Commentary

Germany OKs Mega-Fines For Illicit Content

Maybe you thought they were kidding, but it’s not their style: the Germans really are going to hit social media companies with eye-watering eight-figure fines if they fail to remove illicit content in a timely manner.

This week, German cabinet ministers voted to approve a plan that would make social media companies liable for fines of up to 50 million euros, or $53.3 million, if they fail to remove certain kinds of illegal content within 24 hours of being notified.

This includes posts containing hate speech, incitements to violence, fake news, and child pornography; they would have up to a week for other types of illegal content.

The move came despite rumors circulating over the last week that the cabinet was reconsidering some elements of the proposal by Justice Minister Heiko Maas.

There was one apparent concession: the law will no longer state that social media companies can be fined for a single infraction, although that possibility remains.

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Maas argued that the social media companies’ current performance is unsatisfactory: “Twitter only removes 1% of these hate speeches, Facebook removes less than 50%. But we know this is possible, because YouTube manages to remove 99% of them.”

Maas also rebutted critics who raised free speech concerns, noting that the measure would merely enforce Germany’s existing laws limiting free speech (for example banning racist or anti-Semitic statements), arguing: “There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street.”

Social media companies are understandably concerned about the German law, which is likely to pass the Bundestag – $53.3 million isn’t just pocket change, after all, even for a behemoth like Facebook.

And the threat of huge financial penalties may well make Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and others over-zealous in erasing controversial content –hedging in protected free speech. In effect this would make the social media companies arbiters of public discourse, simply because they happen to provide the infrastructure.

On that note, a spokeswoman for Facebook tells the BBC: “As experts have pointed out, this legislation would force private companies rather than the courts to become the judges of what is illegal in Germany.”

German tech lobbyist Bernhard Rohleder adds: “Given the short deadlines and the severe penalties, providers will be forced to delete doubtful statements as a precaution. That would have a serious impact on free speech on the internet.” And a digital consumer advocate, Volker Tripp, warns in a Reuters interview: “It is the wrong approach to make social networks into a content police.”

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