Legislators in Germany struck a blow against free speech on Friday, approving a law that will regulate and sanction so-called hate speech on social media. The bill would enforce Germany’s existing limits on free speech, which include a decades-old ban on Holocaust denial. Social networking sites found in violation of this law could face fines of as much as $56 million (50 million euros) if they fail to remove objectionable material, including so-called fake news, within one week.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said "Freedom of speech ends where the criminal law begins." Maas was a prime mover in advancing the bill to a vote. He claims that hate crimes have increased by 300 percent in the last two years.
Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media networks have become the platforms for debate over the influx of more than 1 million migrants, most of whom come from Muslim-majority nations and who the government has struggled to accommodate. Maas claimed that more than a year of discussions with social media companies produced little progress. Lawmakers from Maas’ Social Democratic Party and Chancellor Angela Merkel's Union bloc agreed to a number of amendments to give companies more time to check whether objectionable social posts are illegal, allow a third party to vett the posts, and then ensure if those parties whose posts have been removed can appeal the removal.
Facebook released a statement, saying "This law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem." Facebook added, “We feel that the lack of scrutiny and consultation do not do justice to the importance of the subject. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure safety for the people on our platform." The company is hiring 3,000 additional staff on top of 4,500 already working to review social media posts.
The law would also fine the social media minders who are designated by the social media companies if certain requirements are not met. The fines could reach as much as $5.7 million (5 million euros). In addition, social media companies would have to produce reports every six months that show how many complaints have been received.
The Alternative for Germany party announced that it may appeal to Germany’s highest court to rule on the law.