How will Germany’s new law combat fake news and hate crime?

By Heiko Maas

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Germany has passed a new law to counter hate crime and fake news on social media networks. When users report potentially illegal content it will be up to the social media to check that content and delete it speedily if it is illegal. If they don’t comply they will face fines of up to 50m euro. Germany’s Minister for Justice, Heiko Maas, who is the driving force behind the law, sets out his views.

This law doesn’t solve all the problems and yet it is an important step in combatting hate crime and legally punishable fake news on social media. Together we have arrived at further meaningful clarifications. That’s a good result. After all, we cannot allow ourselves to find it satisfactory that social media ignore our legislation. The legal situation is clear: platform operators are obliged to delete legally punishable content when they are aware/made aware of it. We must also enforce this legislation. Every one of us must obey these laws every day. That must also hold true for social media. They must no longer allow their infrastructure to be used to carry out criminal acts.

Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz – NetzDG (law to improve the application of the law on social media)

This summer, Germany passed a new law to counter hate crime and fake news on social media networks more effectively. Social media will be legally obliged to provide a process so that users can complain about illegal content, to check if the content is illegal and to delete or block illegal content speedily (within 24 hours for obviously illegal content and within seven days for illegal content that is not obviously illegal). In addition, they will have to produce a report every quarter about their illegal content complaint process, including information on volumes of complaints and their decision-making process. The report will have to be made available to the public on the internet. Failure to comply could lead to a fine of up to 5m euro for individual staff members responsible for the complaints process and of up to 50m euro for the social media company.

The platform operators’ approach to deleting content is still inadequate. Our experience has very clearly shown that, unfortunately, without political pressure, social media don’t get going. Freedom of opinion also protects abhorrent and hideous statements – even lies can be covered by the concept of freedom of opinion. But freedom of opinion ends where criminal law begins. Incitement to murder, threats and insults, incitement of the masses or lies about Auschwitz are not expressions of freedom of opinion but are attacks on the freedom of opinion of others. These sorts of acts are meant to intimidate and gag people who think differently and to create a climate of intimidation and fear. Those who are concerned about protecting freedom of opinion should not watch passively as open exchanges of opinion are inhibited by legally punishable threats and intimidation.

Among the hate crimes that are crimes under German law are:

Volksverhetzung [incitement of the masses]
Öffentliche Aufforderung zu Straftaten [public incitement to criminal acts]
Störung des öffentlichen Friedens durch Androhung von Straftaten [disturbing the public peace by threatening criminal acts]

We have communicated our regulatory proposals to the European Commission. And I have also presented them to my colleagues in the Council of Justice and Interior Ministers. Hate crime on social media is becoming a bigger and bigger problem in many countries. The law is being observed closely at the international level and Germany is in the vanguard here. We want to push the process on further at the European level. National regulations covering Germany can only be a beginning. In the end, we also need European solutions for companies that operate across Europe.

Just as important is that our state based on the rule of law continues to be called upon. Whoever spreads legally punishable content on the internet must be consistently pursued by justice and held to account. That has absolute priority. It should be clear to everyone that people cannot insult, threaten or incite criminal acts on the internet without being punished.

Finally: all of us, the whole of civil society, should not remain silent if people are threatened or vilified on the internet or there is incitement to act against minorities. Each of us can then make our voices heard. We can show our faces together and make a stand for tolerance and human dignity.