In late October of last year, German officials enacted new legislation that would foist incredible accountability upon social media sites for their users’ content. Twitter, Facebook, and similar online communities have historically been largely immune to the actions of their users. While outright illegal content could find the companies behind these websites in legal trouble, for the most part the actual degree of liability has been fairly negligible.
The new law authorized the government to bring hefty fines against websites that allow posts which violates the country’s notoriously strict hate speech laws. According to the law, fines can range as high as $60 million, making it a serious issues for websites that otherwise rely on ad revenue to stay online. Online communities with user counts above two million were specifically targeted, meaning sites like Facebook and Twitter, which boasts hundreds of millions for the latter and over a billion for the former, could face countless fines due to the difficulty of moderating such a large community.
The courts prudently gave websites until 2018 to improve their moderation staff and software, which in most cases occurred throughout the latter half of 2017. Facebook, for example, pushed to hire an additional 10,000 live moderators and also added improvements to their automated moderation tools, a tactic also adopted by video sharing site YouTube.
While the new law initially saw much support from within the German government, user responses were more divisive. Members of Twitter and other communities have rallied against the new law as an unabashed overstep into free speech rights, a perspective which is now being mirrored by several opposition parties within Germany. Free Democrats general secretary Nicola Beer argued that the ability to censor content in violation of German hate speech laws needed to remain in the hands of government officials and prosecuting authorities, rather than a foreign website’s moderation staff.
Green party leader Simone Peter echoed this sentiment, pointing out the problem of having U.S.-based companies wield such a degree of control over discourse in a foreign country. Peter highlighted the banning of an account held by Titanic, a popular German humor magazine which was accused of offensive comments towards Muslims. Alternative for Germany, a far-right group opposed to immigration, was similarly banned for alleged hate speech against Muslim communities. Parliament leader Sahra Wagenknecht also came out in support of dropping the law, thus bringing Germany’s Left Party to bear against the legislation.