BERLIN (Reuters) – The German cabinet approved a plan on Wednesday to fine social networks up to 50 million euros ($53 million) if they do not remove hateful postings quickly, prompting concerns the law could limit free expression.
Germany already has some of the world’s toughest hate speech laws covering defamation, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, backed up by prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities.
“There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement, adding that he would seek to push for similar rules at a European level.
The issue has taken on more urgency as German politicians worry that a proliferation of fake news and racist content, particularly about 1 million migrants who have arrived in the last two years, could sway public opinion in the run-up to the national election in September.
However, organizations representing digital companies, consumers and journalists, accused the government of rushing a law to parliament that could damage free speech.
“It is the wrong approach to make social networks into a content police,” said Volker Tripp, head of the Digital Society Association consumer group.
The draft law would give social networks 24 hours to delete or block obviously criminal content and seven days to deal with less clear-cut cases, with an obligation to report back to the person who filed the complaint about how they handled the case.
Failure to comply could see a company fined up to 50 million euros, and the company’s chief representative in Germany fined up to 5 million euros.
Bitkom, an association which represents digital companies, said the government should build up specialist teams to monitor online content for potential infringements, rather than expect social networks to do it themselves.
“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,” said Bitkom manager Bernhard Rohleder.
Since it was unveiled last month, the draft law has been amended to include new categories of content, such as child pornography. It also now allows courts to order social networks to reveal the identity of the user behind criminal posts.
To address free speech concerns, the legislation was tweaked to make clear that a fine would not necessarily be imposed after just one infraction. “It is clear that freedom of expression is of huge importance in our vibrant democracy … however, freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins,” Maas said. Maas said a government survey showed Facebook deleted just 39 percent of content deemed criminal and Twitter only 1 percent, even though they signed a code of conduct in late 2015 including a pledge to delete hate speech within 24 hours.
(Reporting by Emma Thomasson and Thorsten Severin; Editing by Tom Heneghan)