Germany Threatens $53 Million Fine in Facebook Hate-Speech Bill

  • Need more pressure on social networks: Merkel’s justice chief
  • Penalties threatened in first draft of German legislation

Germany threatened to fine social networks such as Facebook Inc. as much as 50 million euros ($53 million) if they fail to give users the option to complain about hate speech and fake news or refuse to remove illegal content.

Under the first draft of legislation presented by Justice Minister Heiko Maas on Tuesday, the corporate officials responsible would risk separate fines of as much as 5 million euros. If passed, the bill would be the stiffest regulation Facebook faces in any country where it operates.

“We have to increase the pressure on social networks,” Maas told reporters. “Too little illegal content is deleted, it’s not deleted quickly enough and it looks like the operators of social networks aren’t taking their users seriously enough.”

As Germany’s election campaign gathers pace ahead of the Sept. 24 vote, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is increasing pressure on social networks to curb the spread of fake news and malicious posts. Maas plans to discuss the legislation with other ministries and EU officials in the weeks ahead.

Facebook has about 29 million users in Germany, and has previously said it will work with independent fact checkers in the country to identify fake news and tag such stories with a warning. The company didn’t immediately reply to a call and an email seeking comment.

While Facebook says it takes its responsibility to fight hate speech and fake news “very seriously,” countermeasures shouldn’t be applied with a broad brush because that might have an undesirable impact on free speech, Eva-Maria Kirschsieper, Facebook’s chief lobbyist in Germany, said at a conference in Berlin in January.

Deleting Content

Twitter and Facebook deleted only 1 percent and 39 percent, respectively, of content flagged as illegal by its users, Maas said, citing a study commissioned by his ministry. He cited Google’s YouTube as exemplary, saying the video platform deletes 90 percent of flagged illegal content.

Social networks need to delete or block “obviously illegal” content within 24 hours after it’s been flagged, and other illegal content within seven days, according to the legislation.

“Companies that don’t set up effective complaint management or don’t do so properly -- in particular by not deleting illegal content completely or in a timely manner -- are committing an administrative offense,” the Justice Ministry draft says in explaining when the threat of fines applies.

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