Merkel Coalition Seeks to Punish Social Media for Hate Speech

Merkel Coalition Seeks to Punish Social Media for Hate Speech

Germany frustrated with lack of action by media companies
‘The fines have to hurt,’ top Merkel ally Kauder says

by Patrick Donahue January 14, 2017, 3:18 AM PST January 14, 2017, 6:10 AM PST

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government plans to fine social media networks such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. if they fail to combat hate speech, as German officials accuse media companies of being too slow to take action.

Volker Kauder, chairman of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union parliamentary caucus, said on Saturday that he reached a preliminary agreement with Social Democratic Justice Minister Heiko Maas that would require companies to respond to speech complaints within 24 hours. Otherwise they’ll have to pay.

“The fines have to hurt, otherwise it won’t work,” Kauder told reporters Saturday at a meeting of the CDU’s leadership in the western region of Saarland.

Merkel has backed regulating social-media content including hate speech to help counter populist movements that are gaining support in Germany and across Europe, particularly in response to the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Kauder, echoing frustrations within the coalition, said that social network operators had “played dead” when confronted with the issue.

EU Efforts

With efforts to crack down, the German coalition is wading into a fraught debate about what a government can do to curtail online hate speech, fake news or trolling and what constitutes censorship.

Last year, U.S. Internet giants Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft Corp. promised to engage with the European Union in efforts to tackle hate speech. The companies joined the European Commission last May to go beyond national laws in reviewing online activity.

Kauder, Merkel’s top lieutenant in the lower house, or Bundestag, said the Justice Ministry will draft a bill that will include a “catalogue of fines” and he is confident the coalition will come to a “swift” finalized agreement. He said victims of virtual attacks should have access to the same legal recourse as they have against other types of incitement.

“This is simply about what is valid in the real world also counts in the digital world,” Kauder said, rejecting a query on whether such measures are censorship.

Facebook Pressed

Justice Minister Heiko Maas told German newspaper Rheinische Post that Facebook needed to improve its process for deleting hate posts. The government will take legal action if it finds that the social media company is moving too slowly, the newspaper said.

Merkel herself has been on the receiving end of a wave of such activity, especially after last month’s deadly truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people. But the issue came to the fore in Germany with the refugee crisis, coinciding with a surge of racist and xenophobic social media posts.

The German leader in September 2015 confronted Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg over his company’s efforts to tackle the problem, asking what he had done. In a conversation overheard at a luncheon at the United Nations, Merkel was heard to ask the CEO “are you working on this?” “Yeah,” he responded.

Five months later, Zuckerberg came to Berlin with a vow to rid his site of hate speech against migrants. He said a team of people will police the site in Germany to remove racist posts.

The media companies have also been under pressure from Western governments for not doing enough to remove content related to terrorist groups and far-right organizations. In December, the European Commission warned that time is running out for such U.S. tech companies to prove they are serious about tackling hate speech or face further regulation.


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