Social media platforms may have once been praised as an inherently democratizing force, but in recent years they’ve gained more notoriety for the hate and harassment propogated on their networks. In response, the German government has taken the most decisive action of any democracy yet. In April 2017, the German cabinet passed new legislation on hate speech that the German Bundestag is scheduled to adopt in the summer. The law enables Germany to fine social media companies up to 50 million euros ($55 million) for not reacting swiftly enough to reports of illegal content or hate speech.
The law has an aptly German name Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or Network Enforcement Law. But its main target is U.S. tech giants, which provide the main social media networks in Germany. The clash between U.S. social media companies and the German government is about more than deleting hateful online comments. It is a fight about how much free speech a democracy can take.
PLATFORMS FOR HATE
U.S. companies dominate Internet usage in Germany. With the exception of Xing (the German equivalent of LinkedIn), all major social media channels used by Germans are American. Twenty-eight million Germans have a Facebook account, and Google has nearly a 95 percent market share in search in Germany (compared to a 89 percent market share worldwide). Many Germans clearly appreciate U.S. innovation and the enormously powerful digital companies it has produced. But the nation’s lawmakers, particularly those in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), have become increasingly frustrated with these companies’ reluctance to comply with German law restricting seditious and defamatory speech.
German lawmakers have become increasingly frustrated with social media companies’ reluctance to comply with German law restricting seditious and defamatory speech.
Officials had already been working for several years to push U.S. social media companies to remove hate speech from their platforms when users complain, but their frustrations and fears grew after the 2016 U.S. election. Facebook, Google, and Twitter had agreed in December 2015 to remove such content study in early 2017 found too little improvement. YouTube had deleted 90 percent of criminal content within the timespan allotted. Facebook deleted 39 percent, and Twitter only one percent. From the German government’s point of view, voluntary agreements do not suffice to protect German democracy from hate speech. Only legislation can do that.
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