Germany: Online social networking sites to face high fines for illegal content
Online social networking sites that do not thoroughly delete illegal content could face fines in Germany of up to EUR 50 million. That is the proposal of a bill approved on 5 April by the German Government, according to the Justice Ministry there.
The German Parliament should review the bill prior to elections in September. "Freedom of expression is of enormous significance to our lively democracy. Even expressions that are insulting or repulsive - and even untruths - can be protected by freedom of speech. However, freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins," German Justice minister Heiko Maas (Social Democratic Party - SPD) said in a press release.
Maas also said be believes freedom of speech does not cover defamation or incitement to hatred. The attempts by online social network operators such as Facebook and Twitter have not been sufficient in this regard, Maas believes.
Facebook, according to the German Justice Minister, deletes just 39 % of illegal content reported to it by users, while Twitter deletes just 1 %. That this can be dealt with differently has been demonstrated, he says, by Google, which deletes 90 % of the videos that have been uploaded to its YouTube platform and break German law.
"The biggest problem is that social network complaints by users are not taken seriously enough," Maas has previously said on the issue. "It is clear from this that we must increase the pressure."
The Justice Minister's bill counts on online social networking sites having to follow legally binding standards. It should make it possible for all users to easily report content at any time that they believe breaks the law.
Online social networks would have to immediately review such complaints and delete apparently criminal posts within 24 hours. It will not be enough to delete just the original post, but all others with that same content that have been shared among users must be erased also.
Observers say Maas is responding through this decree to the case of a Syrian refugee who became a target of fake news reports on Facebook calling him a terrorist. The young Syrian national did his best to defend himself in court in the Bavarian city of Würzburg and demanded that all of the news items falsely accusing him be found and deleted.
The court, however, decided that current law does not require this. For the time being, networks are obliged to remove just those specific illegal posts that users report to them.
Firms that fail to follow the new proposed rules would be threatened with two kinds of punishment. On the one hand, a fine of up to EUR 5 million would be levied against the individual staffer responsible for dealing with a complaint of illegal content who failed to do so, while a fine of up to EUR 50 million would be levied against an entire company in such a case.
Any online social networking site, no matter where it is based, would have to maintain a responsible person in Germany to whom users could turn. Maas believes laws counting on regular reporting by such firms about the complaints they receive cannot remain restricted just to Germany, and he wants to introduce this legislation to the EU Member State interior ministers so the European Union could have common rules on this issue in the future.
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