Germany's parliament passed a law on Friday that forces social media sites to quickly take down illegal and slanderous content or face a fine of €50 million ($74.3 million). The new rule affects Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites with more than two million users.
Under the Network Enforcement Act, which goes into effect in October, social media sites have 24 hours to remove content that is illegal in Germany -- such as swastikas, pro-Nazi messages or Holocaust denials. Companies have a week to decide whether or not to delete posts that are offensive but aren't defamatory and don't incite violence -- content that the law refers to as "evidently unlawful".
However, as Mirko Hohmann and Alexander Pirang of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin point out in a blog post claiming the law is a "minefield for US tech", the law does not clarify what criteria social media site should use for determining what is offensive enough to be removed. They also observe that the law doesn't clarify whether this applies to content that was posted outside of Germany.
Country-specific laws present an difficult question for global social network platforms. For example, in Turkey, a leader of Twitter censorship, the government often asks Twitter to block users. The social media company denies many requests, but it does remove some users that violate local laws. The policy affects many users in a country that has broad anti-terrorism laws, and it has even led to Twitter blocking verified journalists. Twitter has not been clear about the criteria it uses to determine what tweets are illegal in Turkey.
After the German law, known commonly as "the Facebook law", was passed, Facebook shared a statement with several news outlets criticising the new rules. "We share the goal of the German government to fight hate-speech. We have been working hard on this problem and have made substantial progress in removing illegal content," the statement reads. "We believe the best solutions will be found when government, civil society, and industry work together and that this law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem."
In an address on Friday, one of the main supporters of the bill, Justice Minister Heiko Maas, said, "Freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins," explaining that hateful speech only serves to silence free speech. "To protect the freedom of expression, we must prevent a climate of fear and intimidation."
Germany has some of the strictest hate speech laws in the world. Both xenophobic statements and Nazi propaganda can lead to prison sentences. In recent years, the country has ramped up efforts to police hate speech amidst the rise of nationalism and hatred towards refugees and migrants.
In December 2015, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube-owner Google agreed to remove hate speech posted online in Germany within a day of posting, but a report published in March showed that the tech giants were doing little to uphold the promise. That report inspired Maas to propose this law.
Over the last year, German police have started cracking down on online hate speech violations. In July 2016, police raided the homes of 60 people accused of posting racist and extreme messages on social media. Earlier this month, German police also raided the homes of 36 people accused of posting hate speech online.
In April, Maas explained his reasoning for the proposed law to a German public broadcaster ARD, saying that the German government could no longer allow tech companies to ignore the hate speech laws and that the only way to dramatically reduce extremists postings was to hold social media sites financially accountable.