Facebook Runs Up Against German Hate Speech Laws – The New York Times

About time – social media companies also need to be accountable (as do users):

In Germany, more than almost anywhere else in the West, lawmakers, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, are demanding that Facebook go further to police what is said on the social network — a platform that now has 1.8 billion users worldwide. The country’s lawmakers also want other American tech giants to meet similar standards.

The often-heated dispute has raised concerns over maintaining freedom of speech while protecting vulnerable minorities in a country where the legacy of World War II and decades under Communism still resonate.

It is occurring amid mounting criticism of Facebook in the United States after fake news reports were shared widely on the site before the presidential election. Facebook also has been accused of allowing similar false reports to spread during elections elsewhere.

Mr. Zuckerberg has denied that such reports swayed American voters. But lawmakers in the United States, Germany and beyond are pressing Facebook to clamp down on hate speech, fake news and other misinformation shared online, or face new laws, fines or other legal actions.

“Facebook has a certain responsibility to uphold the laws,” said Heiko Maas, the German justice minister. In October, Mr. Maas suggested the company could be held criminally liable for users’ illegal hate speech postings if it does not swiftly remove them.

Facebook rejects claims that it has not responded to the rise in hate speech in Germany and elsewhere, saying it continually updates its community standards to weed out inappropriate posts and comments.

“We’ve done more than any other service at trying to get on top of hate speech on our platform,” Mr. Allen said.

Tussles with German lawmakers are nothing new for Facebook.

It has routinely run afoul of the country’s strict privacy rules. In September, a local regulator blocked WhatsApp, the internet messaging service owned by Facebook, from sharing data from users in Germany with its parent company. The country’s officials also have questioned whether Facebook’s control of users’ digital information could breach antitrust rules, accusations the company denies.

Facebook’s problems with hate speech posts in Germany began in summer 2015 as more than one million refugees began to enter the country.

Their arrival, according to company executives and lawmakers, incited an online backlash from Germans opposed to the swell of people from Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries. The number of hateful posts on Facebook increased sharply.

As such content spread quickly online, senior German politicians appealed directly to Facebook to comply with the country’s laws. Even Ms. Merkel confronted Mr. Zuckerberg in New York in September 2015 about the issue.

In response, Facebook updated its global community standards, which also apply in the United States, to give greater protection to minority groups, primarily to calm German concerns.

Facebook also agreed to work with the government, local charities and other companies to fight online hate speech, and recently started a billboard and television campaign in Germany to answer local fears over how it deals with hate speech and privacy.

Facebook hired a tech company based in Berlin to monitor and delete illegal content, including hate speech, from Germany and elsewhere, working with Facebook’s monitoring staff in Dublin.

“They have gotten better and quicker at handling hate speech,” said Martin Drechsler, managing director of FSM, a nonprofit group that has worked with Facebook on the issue.

Despite these steps, German officials are demanding further action.

Ms. Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term in general elections next year, warned lawmakers last week that hate speech and fake news sites were influencing public opinion, raising the possibility of new regulations.

And Mr. Maas, the justice minister, has repeatedly warned that he will propose legislation if Facebook cannot remove at least 70 percent of online hate speech within 24 hours by early next year. It now removes less than 50 percent, according to a study published in September by a group that monitors hate speech, a proportion that is still significantly higher than those for Twitter and YouTube, the report found.

For Chan-Jo Jun, a lawyer in Würzburg, an hour’s drive from Frankfurt, new laws governing Facebook cannot come soon enough.

Mr. Jun recently filed a complaint with Munich authorities, seeking prosecution of Mr. Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook executives on charges they failed to sufficiently tackle the widespread wave of hate speech in Germany. The company denies the accusations.

While his complaint may be dismissed, Mr. Jun says the roughly 450 hate speech cases that he has collected, more than half of them aimed at refugees, show that Facebook is not complying with German law. Despite its global size, he insists, the company cannot skirt its local responsibilities.

“I know Facebook wants to be seen as a global giant,” Mr. Jun said. “But there’s no way around it. They have to comply with German law.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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