German lawmakers are poised to pass a bill designed to enforce the country’s existing limits on free speech – including the long-standing ban on Holocaust denial – in social networks. Critics including tech giants and human rights campaigners say the legislation could have drastic consequences for free speech online.
The proposed measure would fine social networking sites up to 50 million euros ($56 million) if they fail to swiftly remove illegal content, including defamatory “fake news.”
The U.N.’s independent expert on freedom of speech, David Kaye, warned the German government earlier this month that the criteria for removing material were “vague and ambiguous,” adding that the prospect of hefty fines could prompt social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to delete questionable content without waiting for a court to rule it’s unlawful.
“Such precautionary censorship would interfere with the right to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds on the internet,” he said.
The bill is the brainchild of Germany’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party that is the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government. He accuses social networks of failing to prevent their sites from being used to spread inflammatory views and false information long illegal in Germany.
After the Second World War, the country criminalised Holocaust denial and any glorification of its Nazi past, citing the genocidal results such ideas produced as proof of the need to ban them from public debate.
“Freedom of opinion ends where criminal law begins,” Maas said recently. “Calls to commit murder, threats, insults, incitement to hatred or the Auschwitz-lie (that Nazi death camps didn’t exist) aren’t expressions of freedom of opinion but attacks on the freedom of opinion of others.”