BERLIN, Germany – At the start of the year, Germany introduced a controversial new law, that forces social media firms to remove hate speech or face fines up to 50 million euros.
The controversial law, called the Network Enforcement Act was introduced on January 1 and comes at a time when U.S. social media companies have scaled up operations in Germany.
With the implementation of the new law, the country has turned into a testbed for whether tech firms can be relied on to tell the difference between free speech and hate speech.
Soon after the law was implemented, Facebook and Twitter fitted their German websites with additional features for flagging controversial content after having spent months hiring and training moderators to cope with the Network Enforcement Act.
Users who want to report offensive content, will find a way contravening not just the platform’s own community standards but the new law, which also applies to sites like Youtube, Instagram and Snapchat.
Facebook said that it started hiring German-language moderators before the law was approved and has 1,200 people reviewing flagged content from “deletion centres” in Berlin and Essen.
They make up a sixth of the social media giant’s global moderation team.
Twitter meanwhile is reported to have hired more German-language moderators with a background in law but still operates from its European headquarters in Dublin.
However, figures on how the law has affected the number of deletions won’t be published until June.
Yet, several controversial deletions and suspensions in the law’s first few days have bolstered critics who have argued that the law will impact free speech, as companies try to avoid fines.
Germany has passed some of the world’s toughest laws around hate speech in the aftermath of the second world war.
These include prison sentences for Holocaust denial and inciting hatred against minorities.
Further, in recent years, with the increase in the number of terror attacks being planned online, politicians have increasingly voiced concerns about a relative lack of accountability online.
The NezDG law in Germany now ensures that online platforms face fines of up to 50 million euros if they do not remove “obviously illegal” hate speech and other postings within 24 hours of receiving a notification.
Further, the law provides a seven-day period for removal of “illegal” content.
In summer last year, Facebook carried out an average of 15,000 deletions in Germany each month.
The law developed by the Social Democrat-run justice ministry, has come under attack from both sides of the political spectrum.
The AfD has complained of “Stasi methods” reminiscent of censorship in communist East Germany.
Critics on the left meanwhile have accused the state of outsourcing work to private companies that should be carried out by judicial bodies.
Germany’s biggest newspaper too has called for the NetzDG to be scrapped.
An op-ed in tabloid Bild stated, “The law against online hate speech failed on its very first day. It should be abolished immediately,” adding that the law was turning AfD politicians into “opinion martyrs.”
However, Heiko Maas, the justice minister, who is seen as the key driver of the law, has defended himself against the criticism, by saying, “Incitement to murder, threats, insults and incitement of the masses or Auschwitz lies are not an expression of freedom of opinion but rather attacks on the freedom of opinion of others.”