A mural at the Facebook office in Berlin. A new law in Germany requires Facebook and other large social media platforms to quickly delete posts reported as inappropriate. (Reuters/Stefanie Loos)
A mural at the Facebook office in Berlin. A new law in Germany requires Facebook and other large social media platforms to quickly delete posts reported as inappropriate. (Reuters/Stefanie Loos)

As German hate speech law sinks Titanic’s Twitter post, critics warn new powers go too far

The satirical magazine Titanic appears to have been an unlikely victim of Germany’s recently adopted online anti-hate speech law, NetzDG. “We were truly surprised,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief Tim Wolff told CPJ, as he explained how Twitter blocked the Titanic account for 48 hours after the magazine republished a post Twitter had deleted, in which Titanic parodied the anti-Muslim tweets of a far-right German politician.

The law leaves it to the individual social media platforms to judge whether content reported by other users promotes terrorism, incitement, or child abuse, or includes slander or insult. Under NetzDG, social media platforms with more than 2 million users in Germany have 24 hours to remove posts reported by users as being illegal, and must set up a new reporting system to make it easier for users to notify them of posts that appear to include other inappropriate content.

Failure to set up a system for users to report allegedly criminal posts carries a fine of €50 million (US$61 million). If a post is removed, the social media platform will notify the account holder that it was taken down because of complaints.

While social media companies including Twitter have not publicly commented on whether content deleted since January 1 was removed under the new legislation, the media have reported that since NetzDG came into effect, several posts have been removed. Even the law’s architect, Justice Minister Heiko Maas appeared to fall victim to his own project: he told Bild that Twitter informed him it had deleted one of his tweets from 2010–in which he called a politician who wrote a controversial book on Muslim immigrants “an idiot”– after receiving complaints.

The spotlight on the removal of posts in the first weeks of the legislation illustrates the concerns that press freedom and rights groups raised about the law.

A lack of judicial oversight in the process was highlighted in June by David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, who said that the deadline to remove content, coupled with a high fine, could lead to over regulation. CPJ has also warned that the law would put decisions about what is illegal content into the hands of privately owned companies that may be inclined to over-censor in order to avoid potential fines.

Another risk is that NetzDG will set a dangerous precedent internationally. In countries with little to no independent press or where leaders censor critical reporters, social media is a valuable platform to share and report news.

“The real danger is how much this law will serve as an example for restrictive regimes worldwide where social media is practically the only place for free expression,” Günter Bartsch, the managing director of Netzwerk Recherche, the German Association of Investigative Journalists, told CPJ.

Cathleen Berger, a policy expert with Mozilla pointed out in a blog post that the act has seemingly influenced regulatory efforts in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has announced plans for legislation targeting misinformation. Proposals around content and platform regulation were also put forward in Russia, Venezuela, Kenya, the Philippines, and Iraq as part of far-reaching cybercrime bills.

Jacques Pelzet, a journalist for the Berlin-based investigative outlet Correctiv, told CPJ that the law could make online archiving of controversial tweets by politicians and research on social media more difficult for newspapers if social media companies regularly delete posts. Reporting on actual instances of hate speech could also be problematic, he added, saying, “Quoting someone and putting the words in a headline on social media might lead to problems we experienced at the beginning of this year.”

Some in the media, including journalists who were bullied or threatened online, have defended the initiative. “I know very well and can also describe what it feels like to be threatened with rape, when people write they would kill me or do something to my family” Dunja Hayali, a presenter for the public broadcaster ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen), said in a Facebook post earlier this month.

Freelance broadcast reporter Richard Gutjahr told CPJ, “The legislation is a huge step forward, because it forces the social media giants to shoulder their responsibilities.” Gutjahr, who became the target of conspiracy theories and trolling after he was coincidentally close to the location of, and reported on, terrorist attacks in Nice and in Munich in 2016, said that it was hard to report the harassment to social media platforms, particularly YouTube. In a blog post, Gutjahr outlined the complicated process he faced when trying to get social media companies to stop trolls directly targeting him and his family, and said he thought that the new law would help overcome those difficulties. “Those affected finally have a contact person in Germany,” he wrote.

Stefan Niggemeier, the founder of the media blog Über Medien, told CPJ that he thinks the basic concept of the law is right, adding, “In the cases of clearly illegal content, there is no time to wait for the courts.” He said he hoped that the first days of confusion after NetzDG came into force would “make the social media companies realize that they will have to be better at their decisions on what to delete and what not.”

Justice Minister Maas has defended the legislation and said that social media giants failed to adequately address the issue for years. A government survey in 2016 on how quickly platforms responded to reports of apparent illegal content found that Facebook deleted 46 percent of posts reported to it, YouTube removed 10 percent, and Twitter 1 percent.

In an interview with the public broadcaster, ZDF earlier this month, the minister said that authorities would evaluate the effects of the law after six months, when social media companies are due to provide the next update on their progress.

However, journalist organizations have called on the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, to abolish NetzDG. Eva Werner, the spokesperson of the German Federation of Journalists, told CPJ, “Social media companies cannot replace the courts and decide what is legal, what is not, especially within the very short time frame the law allows.” Referring to the Titanic case, she added, “It leads to overreaction, which we already experienced.”

[Reporting from Berlin]