BERLIN — Facebook has criticised a new German law that would force social media companies to pay up to €50 million (£43 million) if they fail to remove hate speech and false news, saying it will encourage paranoid tech companies to delete legal content in order to avoid the hefty fines.
In March, the German government proposed legislation to fine social media companies if they fail to remove slanderous or threatening online postings quickly. The plans were approved by Germany’s cabinet in April but they are yet to come into force.
Now Facebook has responded to the new law, which is being referred to as the “Network Enforcement Act” or “Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz” in German (NetzDG, for short).
The Californian tech giant issued a statement over the weekend explaining why the draft law “is not suitable to combat hate speech and false news.”
In the statement, Facebook says: “The draft law provides an incentive to delete content that is not clearly illegal when social networks face such a disproportionate threat of fines.”
The company added: “It 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.”
Failing to comply with the NetzDG could result in a fine of up to €5 million (£4 million) on the individual deemed responsible for the company in Germany and €50 million (£43 million) against the organisations themselves.
“This (draft law) sets out binding standards for the way operators of social networks deal with complaints and obliges them to delete criminal content,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement announcing the plans.
He subsequently added: “There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street.”
Germany 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.
In 2015, Germany pressed Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to sign up to a code of conduct, which included a pledge to delete hate speech from their websites within 24 hours.
The new draft rules turn these into legal obligations to delete or remove illegal content, to report regularly on the volume of filed complaints and they also demand that sites make it easier for users to complain about offensive content.
Germany is keen to avoid fake news being circulated on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the lead up to its general elections, fearing that it could influence the way that people before they vote in the same way that it may have in the US.
Facebook has taken some early steps to satisfy Germany’s regulators. In January, the company announced that it would start filtering fake news for users in Germany. It was the first overseas expansion of an initiative, which launched in the US in December. The company is doing this by working with a number of fact-checking partners, including non-profit Correctiv.
Stephen Deadman, Facebook’s global deputy chief privacy officer, said at a conference in Berlin in March that the social media giant’s scale makes it hard to monitor and filter everything that gets published and that it had hundreds of staff working on the issue.
“When it comes to managing content, we have almost 1.9 billion people on the platform,” Deadman said at the G20 Consumer Summit. “It’s a pretty unique situation to be in. Managing content is one of our biggest priorities. I don’t want to give any impression that it’s something that doesn’t matter to us: it’s absolutely a top priority.”
Deadman added: “The issues we’re discussing today and the issues that were raised here in Germany this week are what we call ‘hard problems’. They’re ‘hard problems’ because often they involve dilemmas. Take for example, the issue around illegal content. We want everybody to be safe. We also want open and free internet with a variety of content. We also don’t want companies to become the sensors of the internet, or governments for that matter.”
Here is the full statement from Facebook:
“In its statement on the Network Enforcement Act (GER: Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, NetzDG), Facebook outlines the main reasons why the NetzDG is not suitable to combat hate speech and false news. Generally, Facebook shares the federal government’s concern regarding hate speech and false news online. At the same time, Facebook understands its own responsibility and welcomes political efforts to combat these challenges.
“However, the draft law is not the right way to achieve these political goals. The draft law provides an incentive to delete content that is not clearly illegal when social networks face such a disproportionate threat of fines. It 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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