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German law under fire for turning social media companies into ‘overzealous censors’

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By Alice Cuddy
 German law under fire for turning social media companies into ‘overzealous censors’

A new German law compelling social media sites to remove hate speech and other illegal content has come under fire for turning private companies into “overzealous censors.”

The Network Enforcement Act, or NetzDG, which came into force on January 1, requires large social media platforms to quickly remove “illegal content” or face big fines.

The new rules, viewed as some of the strictest in the Western world, have already been cited by Russia, Singapore, and the Philippines as a positive example of legislation to remove illegal content online.

But critics say they threaten freedom of speech.

In a strongly-worded statement this week, Human Rights Watch said the “flawed” law is “vague, overbroad” and sets a dangerous precedent.

What does the law say?

Under the NetzDG law, companies with more than two million registered users in Germany are required to establish a procedure to receive and review complaints of alleged illegal content.

Such content ranges from insulting a public office to actual threats of violence.

If found to be unlawful, material has to be removed within 24 hours. However, sites have a week to act on more "complex cases".

Companies must inform users of all decisions made in response to complaints and provide justification of their decision.

The Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection can fine companies up to €50 million for failing to remove “obviously illegal” posts.

Why was it introduced?

The move to further police social media sites came after several high-profile cases in which hate speech was being spread online in Germany.

A government report last year found that Facebook managed to remove only 39% of illegal material within 24 hours of being notified by users, while Twitter met the deadline in just 1% of cases.

Last August, German-Israeli artist Shahak Shapira launched a high-profile graffiti protest against Twitter, outside the company's offices in Hamburg, accusing the social media giant of failing to delete hate speech.

Hate speech is particularly sensitive in Germany because of the history of the Nazi era.

What effect has it had so far?

Since the law came into force, several high-profile social media users have been censored including a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, a satire magazine, and a political street artist.

AfD lawmaker Beatrix von Storch was blocked from Twitter and Facebook for slamming the Cologne police for sending a New Year’s tweet in Arabic.

“That is the end of the rule of law,” she wrote on Twitter of the censorship.

Satirical magazine Titanic was then blocked for parodying von Storch’s anti-Muslim comments.

‘Little incentive to err on side of free expression’

In its statement this week, HRW said that while governments and the public had valid concerns about illegal content online, the law was turning private companies into “overzealous censors” to avoid steep fines.

“Faced with short review periods and the risk of steep fines, companies have little incentive to err on the side of free expression,” the group explained.

HRW said it was particularly important for issues with the law to be resolved quickly so that other countries didn’t emulate it.

“Forcing companies to act as censors for government is problematic in a democratic state and nefarious in countries with weak rule of law,” said HRW Germany Director Wenzel Michalski.

The HRW statement came amid growing criticism over the law from rights groups and politicians.

The Global Network Initiate, a coalition of NGOs, academics, investors, and companies committed to free expression online, warned last year that the law would “outsource decisions” about freedom of expression to private companies.

The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, has said it is at odds with international human rights standards, while four of Germany’s larger political parties - The Left, the Free Democrats, the Alternative for Germany, and the Green Party - now oppose the law. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended the need to regulate the internet but said “it may be that we also have to make changes” to the law.