Merkel support of NetzDG brings Germany one step closer to cyberhate ban

by Ana Ribeiro

Journalists' and civil rights organisations are signing and circulating a declaration against the passing of Germany’s Network Enforcement Law (NetzDG) as it is. Set to go to Parliament this summer, the law would subject social networks to up to €50 million in fines for failure to speedily curb hate speech and fake news.

Social Media_900 Growing amounts of social media data are becoming available to regulators, which is one element critics are concerned about. (Photo: Public domain)

On April 5, the cabinet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed off on the bill, which now also covers removal of content identified as child pornography and incitement to terrorism. The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz may or may not get parliamentary approval in time for the 24 September elections, when leaders from the AfD and SPD parties are vying to supplant Merkel (CDU).

Facebook is one of the main targets of the legislation and of German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, known for leading the state’s crackdown on cyberhate, which has included raids and arrests. Two attorneys in the country have filed high-profile lawsuits against Facebook, demanding that founder Mark Zuckerberg pay €150 million for not removing from the platform speech that is illegal in Germany.

Petition calls for proposed bill’s revision

The "Declaration on Freedom of Expression", led by the German non-profit Digitale Gesellschaft, disagrees with some parts of NetzDG as it stands, but does agree with others. While it recognises that "freedom of expression… operates within the framework of the legal regulation", it takes issue with how fast cyberhate is expected to be removed and who would be responsible for it:

[NetzDG would transfer] mainly state tasks of enforcement to private companies. The threat of high fines in connection with short reaction times increases the risk that platform operators will delete or block such contents, which fall in a gray area – to the detriment of free expression."

The declaration adds that "the examination of the illegality of content also requires careful consideration of context and the intent of expression. This task must continue to be carried out by the court system."

At least two of the declaration’s supporters have taken to their own websites to demand that the proposal be revised.

European Digital Rights (EDRi) criticises the proposed time frame allowed to remove content – 24 hours to seven days – as well as the broadening of categories deemed punishable offences, and greater access to users' personal data. Signatory Chaos Computer Club (CCC) accuses the legislation of attempting to create a privatised “censorship regime that will suppress opinions, pictures, and films. (…) The task of regulating content in the net should neither be left to corporations [which mainly focus on profit] nor to agitated mobs that mass-flag unwanted opinions."

The ECPMF will continue to follow the developments of the German draft law and the debate surrounding it.