Commentary

Facebook Fires Back On German Fines

Facebook finally responded to the German government’s proposals for eye-watering fines on social media companies that fail to remove fake news and hate speech in a timely fashion.

The German justice ministry has proposed a penalty of up to $53 million for offending social platforms in its new Network Enforcement Act – but many critics are pointing out that the threat of fines will force social media platforms to engage in heavy censorship of user-generated content, with a chilling effect on free speech.

In its first official statement replying to the government’s proposal, Facebook argued that the act would both violate European Union law and fail to achieve its aim of combating hate speech and fake news; the social media giant’s lawyers also assert that the act would shift powers and responsibilities to a corporation that are in fact in the purview of the state.

Facebook asserted that the proposed act “would have the effect of transferring responsibility for complex legal decisions from public authorities to private companies. And several legal experts have assessed the draft law as being against the German constitution and non-compliant with EU law. Facebook is committed to working in partnership with governments and civil society on solutions that will make this draft law unnecessary.”

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Hate speech and incitements to criminal activity have long been illegal in Germany, reflecting the country’s troubled history, but these offenses have always been handled by the government, not media companies, including fines and official prosecution of individuals who make these statements.

Media companies that publish offensive content are also liable for these penalties, but in some other EU countries Facebook has taken the position that it is not a publisher and therefore not responsible for what people post on its site.

On that note, in its statement Facebook also warns that gigantic fines will inevitably force social media platforms to restrict online discourse to an ever-narrower range of acceptable content: “The draft law provides an incentive to delete content that is not clearly illegal when social networks face such a disproportionate threat of fines.”

Separately, European Union officials are readying a crackdown on these and other forms of illicit content on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Under the new rules social media platforms must block videos containing hate speech, calls for violence or praise for terrorists. The EU law would also require big social platforms to make it easier for users to flag offending content.

Earlier this month, a UK parliamentary committee blasted social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, for not doing enough to combat banned content, including hate speech, terrorist propaganda and material depicting child abuse including child pornography.
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