When people post hateful comments online, should platforms like Facebook or Twitter be held responsible?

Most Internet companies hold that they are open publishing platforms or intermediaries and are not responsible for the content their users generate. In many jurisdictions, companies are exempted from liability if they follow certain legal procedures.

This principle is being challenged by a German law to regulate content on platforms passed in 2017. The law introduces steep fines for popular social media companies if they do not take down illegal content quickly. What exactly constitutes hate speech still evades definition, but Germany has a relatively low legal tolerance for racist and violent speech.

The new law has pitted many Internet rights advocates against each other.

There are those who say self-regulation has not been satisfactory enough, and welcome forcing Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter to put more resources into dealing with hate speech and harassment by, for instance, employing more local content moderators.

Others think that outsourcing “content policing” to corporations is a slippery slope that creates an undesirable incentive for platforms to remove any controversial but legal content quickly, putting the openness of the entire Web at risk. After all, two thirds of the world’s Internet users live in countries that censor speech.

Now that everyone is grappling with how to deal with online hate speech, harassment and “fake news,” Germany’s law did not go unnoticed on the global stage.

Countries, including Russia, Kenya, Venezuela and The Philippines, have passed legislation modeled on Germany’s new law. When laws here are critiqued by those who have not criticized Germany, it leads to accusations of double standards.

For any country interested in restricting free speech, mimicking the Internet laws of Germany offers more legitimacy than borrowing from those of China or Iran.

Consider Venezuela. In the context of an economic and political crisis, online hate speech penalties inspired by the German law were introduced by the National Constituent Assembly in 2017. “These are rules to persecute dissidents,” says Internet pundit Luis Carlos Díaz, who has criticized Venezuelan politicians for saying the law in Germany was a success before it was even implemented.

Separate to how or which governments use Internet laws to further their agendas, the main question is intermediary liability, free speech and the troubling clash between local and global concerns. When one territory seeks to enforce local content laws on major Internet platforms, can they be expected to consider consequences elsewhere? In 2018, the German law – and those like it – will surely be widely discussed, critiqued and hopefully refined.

Further reading:

Content and platform regulation: The German case and what’s to come in 2018, Cathleen Berger, 2017
Computational propaganda in Germany: A Cautionary Tale, Lisa-Maria N. Neudert, 2017