Justice minister threatens sanctions such as fines on tech companies if they still fail to delete illegal posts by early next year
Germany is to consider new laws that would force social media platforms such as Facebook and search engines such as Google to take a more active role in policing illegal hate speech on their sites.
Measures considered by Angela Merkels coalition government include forcing companies to set up clear channels for registering complaints, to publish the number of complaints they receive and to hire legally qualified ombudsmen to carry out deletions.
Online platforms that fail meet such legal requirements could be hit with fines calculated on the basis of their global annual turnover, or face on-the-spot fines of up to 500,000 if they neglect to remove posts in breach of German hate speech law within 24 hours.
Concerns over social medias power to fire up populist narratives and boost conspiracy theories has increased after Britains vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trumps shock election in November, with politicians across Europe looking anxiously ahead to elections in France and Germany next year.
In Germany, which has some of the toughest laws around hate speech including prison sentences for Holocaust denial and inciting hatred against minorities political frustration with tech companies refusal to take responsibility for content posted on their sites has increased markedly in recent months.
A hate speech taskforce including representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter, set up by German justice minister Heiko Maas in autumn 2015, vowed to aim to delete illegal postings within 24 hours. But a government report published in late September this year found that tech companies were still struggling to react adequately to breaches of law, with Facebook only deleting 46%, YouTube 10% and Twitter 1% of illegal content flagged up by normal, non-privileged users.
According to a investigation by Sddeutsche Zeitung, Facebook currently employs about 600 people via the service provider Arvato to each carry out 2,000 deletions per day on its German-language accounts. But German officials say they have received no such information from the tech companies themselves.
If another report due at the start of next year showed no further improvement, the German government would take steps towards sanctioning companies, Maas told The Observer.
We are already looking in detail at how we can make providers of online platforms criminally liable for undeleted content that breaks German law. Of course, if other measures dont work we also need to think about fines. That would be a strong incentive for quick action.
While German law currently sets an upper limit of 10 million for the amount companies can be fined for criminal offences, the justice ministry is independently looking into whether fines in the future can be calculated on the basis of a companys global annual turnover.
We urgently need more transparency, said Maas, a member of the centre-left Social Democratic party. We could imagine obliging social networks to publish at regular intervals how many complaints they have received about illegal hate speech and how they dealt with them. That way it would be visible for everyone how many complaints there are and how many deletions. That too would increase the pressure on Facebook, Twitter, Google and others.
Companies that make money with their social networks have social obligations it cannot be in any companys interest that their platform is used to commit crimes, he said.
While the debate in Germany has mostly focused on postings on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, such law changes would also have wide-ranging consequences for the Google search engine.
Last Sunday, an Observer article pointed out that the top Google search result for the question Did the Holocaust happen linked to an article on a neo-Nazi website. While typing the same question in German into German Google does not yield this link, the first page of results still includes links to Holocaust-denial articles.
According to Christian Solmecke, a Cologne lawyer specialising in hate-speech offences, such statements are unequivocally covered by section 130, paragraph 3 of the German criminal code, which states that whosoever publicly or in a meeting approves of, denies or downplays an act committed under the rule of National Socialism […] in a manner capable of disturbing the public peace shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding five years or a fine.
While Google does not have to seek out illegal content out of its own accord, it has to react to any complaint, whether by deletion or by blocking access, Solmecke said: According to German law, a complaint would immediately oblige Google to delete such content and avoid a future repeat of such a violation.
Unlike the three social media sites at the heart of the German governments current investigation Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned Youtube the search engine itself does not offer a prominently displayed channel for lodging complaints, such as Facebooks abuse button.
A send feedback window at the bottom of Googles search page allows ordinary users to message the search engine, but since there is no separate field for contact details, the process is a one-way street. The Guardian used the feedback box to Google about a link to a website by Ursula Haverbeck a prominent German holocaust denier who has been repeatedly sent to prison under the incitement of hatred law but the website was still listed as one of the engines top search results 24 hours later.
Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called on Google and other tech companies to take a more active role in stopping the spread of hate speech online. Websites that deny the Holocaust, stoke antisemitism and resentments against minorities, or spread other inhuman messages, are completely unacceptable, Schuster said.