Is Germany’s Latest Attempt to Curtail Hate Speech Censorship in Disguise?

Germany has a tough new law, effective on this New Year’s Day, written to curtail “hate speech” on social media. Critics are afraid that it is government overreach, and that its enforcement will also infringe on free speech rights and is akin to censorship. Some argue that at the heart of the measure is the shoring up of Angela Merkel’s reputation, which has been damaged as a result of the erstwhile immigration fiasco which has seen Muslims vilified by speech considered “hateful”.

Already, in just a mere few days since it came into being, the law is arousing opposition from those who see it as a blank check to arbitrarily stifle any speech the government deems inappropriate. “The law against online hate speech failed on its very first day,” writes Julian Reichelt, the editor in chief of Bild. The law, he claims, is so broad that it could be applied to anything and anyone because there is no clear definition of what is “manifestly unlawful.” This gives the government too much discretion in his judgment.

Underlining the conundrum faced by regulators in determining what is free speech and what is hate speech is a New Year’s Eve quote by far-right politician Beatrix Von Storch. She accused Cologne police, in what may be the first post to pertain to the new law, of appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men”. This, of course, fell on the anniversary of a rampage against women in Cologne that was falsely attributed to Muslim men.

To get specific, the new law, translated as Enforcement on Social Networks, requires social-media sites to delete or block criminal content within 24 hours (or within seven days where evaluation of content is more difficult). It provides for fines up to €50 million (approx. $60m USD) for sites that don’t quickly take down messages defined as “hate speech” or “fake news.  By the way, it just didn’t arrive out of thin air on January 1, it had been foreshadowed by legislative action in October, and is just now coming into force. Initially, the government will assign the online policing tasks to 50 people.

The initial main targets are the social platform giants such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter but Spiegel Online suggests the government is looking to apply the law more broadly - including to content on networks such as Reddit, Tumblr, Flickr, Vimeo, VK and Gab.  The law also codifies penalties if the social media platforms, regardless of size, don’t provide a contact in Germany for user-complaints or requests for information from investigators within 48 hours of a complaint.

Germany’s sensitivity to hate speech is understandable given its experience both before and during WWII. After the Second World War, Germany passed some of the world’s toughest laws around hate speech, including prison sentences for Holocaust denial and inciting hatred against minorities. With regard to the latter, it could be ventured that its bungling of the latest migration progress has prompted the latest onerous law.

The German effort is not one undertaken in isolation, either. The European Commission, in attempting to legislate online speech, appears to be seeking to wrap various types of “illegal” content into the same problem bucket, and is quickly drawing criticism that it risks encouraging censorship by seeking to create one set of rules to apply to copyrighted content and terrorist propaganda. This merely serves to underscore the risks concerning broad efforts to regulate the types of content that can and can’t be viewed online.

The worry is that overly repressive rules end up being promulgated to try to regulate all sorts of “illegal” content online. This could also result in a wider chilling effect on online expression, and reduced support for broad regulatory efforts. It leads one to wonder where it will all end-or will it end?

Editor's note: This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed here should not be sen as representing those of the rest of the staff.

Image credit: By Lukasz Stefanski/Shutterstock.

Written by: Stan Ward

Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him.


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