Posted by April Horning
A new law that took effect on October 1 is changing the way free speech works in Germany and threatens similar movements in much of Europe. Instead of protecting free speech, the German government has turned over monitoring online content to service providers to police. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have essentially become the “thought police” for the entire country.
It is now the responsibility of each of the social media platforms to not only monitor all the web content but also remove any “criminal offenses” within 24 hours of being reported by a user. Things that may fall under the category of being criminal to include libel, slander, defamation, and incitement. While the law defines what types of things could fall under its umbrella, nothing is saying that a complaint by a user needs to be right or anything needs to be proven. The service provider is obligated to act quickly or face massive fines.
While the law defines what types of things could fall under its umbrella, nothing is saying that a complaint by a user needs to be right or anything needs to be proven. The service provider is obligated to act quickly or face massive fines.
In the past, the provider’s priority was protecting users and their user agreements. This has shifted as they are now serving as officials representatives of the German government.
In this case, there is a lot of discussion about the push for some service providers to remove too much content merely to avoid the harsh fines. A company can face a penalty of 50 million euros for not removing material. Most cases call for a 24-hour turn around time, but in more complex cases the service providers may have up to 7 days to explore act.
According to a recent report about the new law:
“This state censorship makes free speech subject to the arbitrary decisions of corporate entities that are likely to censor more than absolutely necessary, rather than risk a crushing fine. When employees of social media companies are appointed as the state’s private thought police and given the power to shape the form of current political and cultural discourse by deciding who shall be allowed to speak and what to say, and who shall be shut down, free speech becomes nothing more than a fairy tale. Or is that perhaps the point?”
There is also some confusion about what even falls under the category of the content that is now illegal. A recent court case in Germany adds more fuel to that fire. A court sentenced a German journalist to 6 months in jail for posting a historical photo on his personal Facebook page. Michael Stürzenberger posted a photo of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini shaking hands with a Nazi official in 1941. Although the picture was found to be authentic, courts said this was anti-Islamic and constituted “inciting hatred towards Islam” and “denigrating Islam.”
Suddenly something as simple as a historical photo can be the grounds for arrest. It can also it seems to cost an internet service provider millions if not removed under this new law. If Germany has their way, this new law will be only the start for all of Europe. Officials are attempting to push for similar laws all over the EU.
The current focus is interesting as it shifts the responsibility squarely onto social media platforms to keep online content “safe.” Current talks in the UK include forcing providers there to address web content as well. Prime Minister Theresa May is using this type of law to monitor terrorist content, as a recent news report explains:
“Industry needs to go further and faster in automating the detection and removal of terrorist content online… ultimately it is not just the terrorists themselves who we need to defeat. It is the extremist ideologies that fuel them. It is the ideologies that preach hatred, sow division and undermine our common humanity. We must be far more robust in identifying these ideologies and defeating them — across all parts of our societies.”
On the surface this seems to make sense, targeting terrorists online perhaps is a right place to start in we are talking about limiting web content. The more significant issue is that they quickly make the leap from terrorist propaganda to prosecuting “hate speech” online.
The courts in the UK via the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) recently updated its police about hate crimes online. They made a press statement affirming that online “…hate crimes will be prosecuted with the same robust and proactive approach used with offline offending”. There have already been over 14,000 hate crimes prosecuted by CPS from 2016 to 2017.
It may seem like a good thing that so many hate crimes make it to the courts in the UK, but there is some discussion about only part of the population genuinely being protected by these laws. It is widely reported that the last three years have seen a considerable increase of anti-Semitism. Local officials saw a surge of crimes against Jews in the UK at an increase 45% each year.
With an increase in crimes targeting Jews, it would seem to make sense that there would be a more significant number of hate crimes prosecuted as well. This is not the case as 2016 saw only 20 cases and so far in 2017, there have been 21. According to a news report about the lack of hate crime charges:
“Last year only 1.9% of hate crime against Jews was prosecuted, signaling to police forces that their effort in investigating hate crimes against Jews might be wasted, and sending the strong message to anti-Semites that they need not fear the law… Each year since 2014 has been a record-breaking year for anti-Semitic crime: between 2014 and 2016, anti-Semitic crime surged by 45%.”
While the Jewish community is virtually left on their own to deal with the increase in crime, community efforts were made to increase the number of prosecutions for “Islamophobia.” It is clear that hate crimes mean different things to different groups.