Germany may well be the country to lead the digital revolution against hate speech.
A law recently passed by the German government will force social media companies that have over two million German users to delete illegal, slanderous or racist comments and posts within 24 hours, or face fines of up to $57 million. Social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will fall under this umbrella come October, when the law goes into effect.
Is Germany Protecting Free Speech or Overstepping?
The German law has been the subject of controversy since it was first introduced, with fierce supporters on both sides.
German authorities say that the law, which makes anything illegal in Germany effectively illegal on large social media sites, is a way of preserving free speech online. Opponents, including advocacy groups like the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, say the law goes way too far. Instead of protecting free speech, they reason, the German administration has put the impetus to police language in the hands of Silicon Valley corporations.
Prior to the law’s conception, a study was performed to see just how well Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were doing at policing this sort of content on their own. The German national target for removing problematic content was a take-down of 70 percent of known content within 24 hours. Facebook, the study found, only managed to remove 39 percent and Twitter a mere one percent. Google’s YouTube left them all in the dust by removing 90 percent of troublesome content in the same time frame.
Although these tech giants are now working on the problem of tackling extremist messages and fake news on their sites with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning, there’s some question as to what to do with borderline content. Some language and content is clearly hate speech, or violates very specific German laws against materials that promote Holocaust denial or Nazi symbology, but much of what gets flagged falls into a more ambiguous area.
Determining What’s Illegal Content
For this content, German law allows seven days for the social media sites to make up their minds, but provides surprisingly little guidance on how to decide what is and what isn’t illegal content.
Facebook told The New York Times it shared the German goal of fighting hate speech. The new hires announced in May to help clear flagged postings in a timely manner will go a long way toward helping both Facebook and Germany meet these aspirations, but whether allowing social media to shape the global conversation is going to ultimately backfire remains to be seen.