Germany has threatened to slap social media companies with huge fines if they do not act quickly enough to remove “hate speech” from their websites. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet on Wednesday approved a measure that would fine websites like Facebook and Twitter up to $55 million if they do not do enough to censor comments that violate German speech law.
"Hate crimes that are not effectively combatted and prosecuted pose a great danger to the peaceful cohesion of a free, open and democratic society," said Merkel's government in a statement. Germany outright bans any speech that overtly promotes racism or insults a certain segment of the population. It also, due to its Nazi past, bans public Holocaust denial.
The draft legislation would require social media companies to remove any illegal speech within 24 hours of it being flagged by users. Other offensive content would need to be removed within seven days of being reported and reviewed. The German Federation of Journalists blasted the move and said the legislation would make it “difficult to reconcile freedom of the press and opinion.”
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the companies are responsible for policing and removing hateful content from their sites and that “there is no room for criminal incitement on social media.” “The internet affects the culture of debate and the atmosphere in our society. Verbal radicalization is often a preliminary stage to physical violence,” he added.
The massive flow of refugees into Germany over the past two years has fueled a rise in negative online comments, alarming German authorities. In 2015, the social media companies agreed to step up policing of online hate speech, though Maas said they have not done enough.
Mass cited research that claims Twitter removes just one percent of the illegal content flagged by users within 24 hours, while Facebook removes 39 percent. Facebook rejected Mass’s data, citing its own data that shows it removes about 65 percent of illegal content within a day. German lawmaker Renate Kuenast called the fines “an invitation to not just erase real insults, but to wipe out almost everything for the sake of playing it safe.” The bill still needs to be approved by parliament.