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The world looks to Germany for social media censorship precedent

online censorship free speech

A new German law designed to prevent, remove and prosecute ‘hate speech’ online has come into full effect, which could set a precedent for the rest of the world.

The law is called Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, mercifully abbreviated to NetzDG. Germany started to implement it last year, but only unleased its full force at the start of this year. Inevitably some Germans with a position on this law have sought to test its boundaries, with both polemicists and satirists having social media posts taken down according to Politico.

These early anecdotes serve to illustrate the immense challenge faced by anyone looking to legislate supposed hate speech out of the public domain.

Firstly there’s the basic logistical difficulty of implementing such a law. Short of using algorithms that prevent users publishing certain words or combinations of them there will always be a significant delay between publication and removal during which, it could be argued, the harm has been done.

On top of that you have the many different sets of rules in play. Social media companies have their own rules on what is acceptable on their platform and individual countries formulate their own laws on the matter, often informed by little more than pressure to be seen to be doing something about hate. Is it reasonable to expect private companies to take the lead in such public policing?

And then you have the definition of ‘hate’. This term is very much in vogue, with its current use having originated from a desire to prevent violent extremists from recruiting, organising and spreading their message via social media. But in the absence of a universally-accepted definition of hate-speech the goalposts have inevitably moved as the term becomes appropriated by people with broader censorship agendas.

Which brings us to the underlying socio-political concept at the core of this issue: the balance between security and freedom. Most rational people accept that some personal freedoms have to be curtailed in the name of law and security, with constructive debates continuing about where the ideal point of equilibrium should be.

While there are solid arguments that freedom is hollow in the absence of security, a major concern being expressed about these German laws is that they go too far in the direction of censorship, and furthermore that this censorship has a degree of bias.

For many, the term ‘hate’ has become conflated with other forms of edgy communication that may be antagonistic to their world view. This could include politically incorrect statements, criticism of individuals or groups that are considered ‘vulnerable’, or even just statements that are considered ‘offensive’.

This is obviously a subjective set of criteria and thus not subject to legal due process or formal, structured critique. The danger of allowing online censorship to be governed by subjective, fluid, ill-defined rules is not just the difficulty of implementation and adherence, but the significant possibility of those rules being hijacked by forces that don’t have the greater public interest in mind.

In other semi-related news James Damore, the Google software engineer fired after his internal memo querying his company’s hiring practices and criticizing its claimed intolerance of certain views went public, is suing the company for discriminatory employment practices. The suit (see below) alleges that Google discriminated against Damore, and anyone else that feels like joining the class action, on the grounds of perceived political views, male gender and Caucasian race.

A further illustration of the complexities involved in policing online speech can be seen in some of the responses to Damore’s tweet announcing the law suit. Just as with the German hate speech laws this case could also set a precedent of global significance if it’s found that political, gender and racial discrimination applies in both directions.

 

James Damore vs. Google: Class Action Lawsuit by TechCrunch on Scribd


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