Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

How Merkel Is Taking on Facebook and Twitter

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Germany has now begun enforcing Europe’s toughest law aimed at reining in hate speech and fake news on social media, threatening to fine the likes of Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube up to 50 million euros ($60 million) if they refuse to delete illegal posts. The legislation, which kicked in on Jan. 1 and is backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has drawn criticism and support from many sides of the political aisle. The law has garnered early potency, after Twitter moved quickly to block posts from two senior politicians for the Alternative for Germany, a far-right opposition party.

1. Why did Germany draft this law?

The law is the result of a conflict that has been simmering since 2015, when Merkel confronted Facebook’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg on how his company is progressing in efforts to curtail racist posts during the country’s refugee crisis. Also frustrated by a surge in hate speech and fake news during Germany’s 2017 election campaign, Merkel’s government drafted the law that was approved by lawmakers last summer -- despite criticism from the companies as well as internet activists, who are saying it’s curtailing free speech.

2. What exactly does the law do?

The so-called Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz law is demanding that social networks with more than 2 million users -- everyone from Facebook to Pinterest Inc. -- remove illegal content within 24 hours once it’s flagged (or seven days if the case is more complex) or face fines of up to 50 million euros. The likes of Facebook are also to implement functions that allow users to more easily flag potentially illegal posts, and produce a yearly report detailing what it deleted and why.

3. What are the law’s critics saying?

An unusual alliance of critics has spoken out against the law -- from the social networks to the OSCE to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, who are all complaining that it reduces the diversity of opinions. The editor-in-chief of Bild, Germany’s biggest-selling daily, said in a Jan. 4 editorial the law is a "sin against freedom of speech," and should be abolished because it puts the decision over what’s illegal and what isn’t in the hands of companies instead of the courts.

4. What are Facebook and its peers doing in response?

Facebook, Google and Twitter have already implemented measures allowing users to more easily report contested content. Even before the law was enforced Facebook had hired 1,200 people to screen its site for illegal postings and had removed tens of thousands of fake accounts in Germany in the month before the election. Twitter and Facebook in the first days of this year already deleted content and temporarily blocked accounts -- from seemingly racist comments by AfD lawmakers to tongue-in-cheek posts by the satire magazine Titanic, showing that the system still needs fine-tuning.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake Q&A on Germany’s anti-immigrant AfD party
  • The German Justice Ministry explains the new law
  • Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky on censoring social media
  • Research on the rise of fake news
  • A story on how Merkel was targeted by anti-Hillary Clinton trolls
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