Germany Moves to Fine Twitter for Not Censoring Enough Hate Speech

FUERSTENWALDE, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 03: Tesla head Elon Musk arrives to have a look at the
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German regulators have launched a procedure to fine Twitter for alleged failures to remove “illegal” content on the platform, such as hate speech and insults.

On Tuesday, Berlin’s Federal Office of Justice (BfJ) announced that it has begun legal action against Twitter under the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), a 2018 law aimed at combatting so-called hate speech on the internet, which unlike in the United States, is illegal in Germany.

In a statement, the German regulator accused the Silicon Valley microblogging site of a “systemic failure” to follow the legal obligation to remove content flagged by users as potentially illegal promptly. Under the legislation, companies can be fined up to €50 million.

“Twitter is obliged to provide an effective and transparent procedure for dealing with complaints from users about illegal content. Among other things, it must immediately take note of reported content, check whether it is illegal within the meaning of the NetzDG, and illegal content, in compliance with the legal deadline of regularly seven days or 24 hours in case of obvious illegality, delete or block access to it,” the Federal Office of Justice wrote.

“The Internet is not a law-free space,” Justice Minister Marco Buschmann added. “Platforms must not simply accept it if their services are misused to distribute criminal content.”

Under the criminal code of Germany, which has some of the strictest hate speech regulations in the world, it is illegal to “violate the human dignity” of others by “insulting, maliciously maligning or defaming a group defined by its national, racial, religious or ethnic origin, ideology, disability or sexual orientation,” with a punishment of up to two years in prison.

With the implementation of the NetzDG law in 2018, the German government greatly expanded its efforts to crack down on hate speech online. However, as has been typical of Western governments in recent years, Berlin outsourced the enforcement of censoring such speech to the websites and platforms themselves.

Free speech advocates on both the right and left of the political spectrum condemned the law, with Human Rights Watch warning after its passage that by compelling social media sites to remove hate speech or other criminal content, the German government was setting a “dangerous precedent for other governments looking to restrict speech online”.

Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch, said of the law at the time: “It is vague, overbroad, and turns private companies into overzealous censors to avoid steep fines, leaving users with no judicial oversight or right to appeal.”

The law has previously been used to fine fellow Silicon Valley tech giant Facebook for $2.3 million for similar alleged failures to moderate content.

The structure through which the German regulator is seeking to fine Twitter is separate from the recently enacted EU-wide Digital Services Act (DSA) which came into force earlier this year. Like Germany’s NetzDG law, the Brussels-led legislation will similarly force internet companies to act as enforcers of the bloc’s restrictions on speech.

Those platforms or websites that fail to comply with the law by February of 2024 will face fines from the EU of up to six per cent of their global revenue as well as face a potential ban from Europe entirely.

The architect of the censorious legislation, Thierry Breton, a French tech executive turned EU Internal Market Commissioner, has previously warned new Twitter boss Elon Musk that the company runs the risk of being banned in the European Union if he followed through with his pledge of restoring the platform to its free speech roots.

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here @KurtZindulka


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