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German online hate speech law is now up and running

Defendants with lawyer and jury

It has been debated, its already considered controversial and could be messy. Germany’s law to tackle hate speech and fake news online is now live.

The idea was floated last year, and the initial punishment was thought to be in the region of €500,000, but the reality of The Enforcement on Social Networks (NetzDG) law is much more stringent. Social media networks could be fined up to €50 million if found to have not reacted quick enough to non-compliant content.

To fall under the microscope of the German government, a platform must have at least 2 million registered users in Germany, though these figures do not necessarily take into account how many of these individuals are active users. This is one area where complications could arise, as there are certainly cases where profiles will be registered in a different country. Some may have done this intentionally, some could have been too lazy to search for Germany on the drop down list, but it does seem like an area which could be challenged by a platform which has fallen foul of the law.

This is certainly a law which will attract the attention from numerous countries around the world, as there will be governments who will want to replicate it. The UK is certainly one which has been looking into how hate speech and offensive content can be controlled. But these governments may be more acutely looking for what can go wrong as opposed to what goes right.

Aside from the challenge mentioned above, another very controversial issue will be the idea of censorship and the removal of freedom of speech. The main problem here is philosophical; what is offensive and who decides?

Now there are clearly some cases which are offensive, and disputing them will only lead to misery, but there are numerous instances which might sit on the fence. Take Wales for instance. Your correspondent grew up just outside Cardiff, and upon moving to England was subjected to a number of stereotypes regarding Wales, the Welsh people and Welsh livestock.

The vast majority of the time, these stereotypes came in the form of jokes from friends, but if you go by the basic definition, it is an example of Xenophobia. Does this mean such jokes should be outlawed? Your correspondent wasn’t offended, but there might be some people who would be? Where do you draw the line on what would be considered offensive? Who’s feelings should be used as the measure to what is allowed and what isn’t?

This is a very basic and superficial example, but it does illustrate a point. Another example is the evolution of literature.

Sometimes ideas are based around controversial and perhaps offensive pieces of content, but only by challenging the status quo does the line and opinion change. Some things will always remain offensive, but want about pieces of fiction such as Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. This is a book which is now considered by some as a modern great, but it was the subject of an obscenity trial in the United Kingdom and was banned in Italy.

This law is obviously targeted at the extreme end of the scale, but German officials will have to be very careful in enforcing it. It will be challenged, and so it should be.


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