Germany has formally announced its draconian push towards censorship of social media. On March 14, Germany's Justice Minister Heiko Maas announced the plan to formalize into law the "code of conduct", which Germany pressed upon Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in late 2015, and which included a pledge to delete "hate speech" from their websites within 24 hours.
"This [draft law] sets out binding standards for the way operators of social networks deal with complaints and obliges them to delete criminal content," Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement announcing the planned legislation.
"Criminal" content? Statements that are deemed illegal under German law are now being conflated with statements that are merely deemed, subjectively and on the basis of entirely random complaints from social media users -- who are free to abuse the code of conduct to their heart's content -- to be "hate speech". "Hate speech" has included critiques of Chancellor Angela Merkel's migration policies. To be in disagreement with the government's policies is now potentially "criminal". Social media companies, such as Facebook, are supposed to be the German government's informers and enforcers -- qualified by whom and in what way? -- working at the speed of light to comply with the 24-hour rule. Rule of law, clearly, as in North Korea, Iran, Russia or any banana-republic, has no place in this system.
Maas is not pleased with the efforts of the social media companies. They do not, supposedly, delete enough reported content, nor do they delete it fast enough, according to a survey by the Justice Ministry's youth protection agency. It found that YouTube was able to remove around 90% of "illegal" postings within a week, while Facebook deleted or blocked 39% of content and Twitter only 1%. The German minister, it seems, wants more efficiency.
"We need to increase the pressure on social networks... There is just as little room for criminal propaganda and slander [on social media] as on the streets," said Maas. "For this we need legal regulations." He has now presented these legal regulations in the form of a draft bill, which provides for complaints, reporting and fines.
There also appears to be no differentiation made between primary-source hate speech, as in many religious tenets, and secondary-source hate speech, reporting on the former.
According to the draft, social media platforms with more than two million users would be obliged to delete or block any criminal offenses, such as libel, slander, defamation or incitement, within 24 hours of receipt of a user complaint. The networks receive seven days for more complicated cases. Germany could fine a social media company up to 50 million euros for failing to comply with the law; it could fine a company's chief representative in Germany up to 5 million euros.
It does not stop there. Germany does not want these measures to be limited to its own jurisdiction. It wants to share them with the rest of Europe: "In the end, we also need European solutions for European-wide companies," said Maas. The European Union already has a similar code of conduct in place, so that should not be very hard to accomplish.
Facebook, for its part, has announced that by the end of 2017, the number of employees in complaints-management in Berlin will be increased to more than 700. A spokeswoman said that Facebook had clear rules against hate speech and works "hard" on removing "criminal content".
If Facebook insists on operating under rules of censorship, it should at the very least aim to administer those rules in a fair manner. Facebook, however, does not even pretend that it administers its censorship in any way that approximates fairness. Instead, Facebook's practice of its so-called "Community Standards" -- the standards to which Facebook refers when deleting or allowing content on its platform in response to user complaints -- shows evidence of entrenched bias. Posts critical of Merkel's migrant policies, for example, can get categorized as "Islamophobia", and are often found to violate "Community Standards", while incitement to actual violence and the murder of Jews and Israelis by Palestinian Arabs is generally considered as conforming to Facebook's "Community Standards".
Facebook's bias, in fact, became so pronounced that in October 2015, Shurat Hadin Israel Law Center filed an unprecedented lawsuit against Facebook on behalf of some 20,000 Israelis, to stop allowing Palestinian Arab terrorists to use the social network to incite violent attacks against Jews. The complaint sought an injunction against Facebook that required it to monitor incitement and to respond immediately to complaints about content that incites people to violence. Shurat Hadin wrote at the time:
"...Facebook is much more than a neutral internet platform or a mere 'publisher' of speech because its algorithms connect the terrorists to the inciters. Facebook actively assists the inciters to find people who are interested in acting on their hateful messages by offering friend, group and event suggestions ... Additionally, Facebook often refuses to take down the inciting pages, claiming that they do not violate its 'community standards'. Calling on people to commit crimes is not constitutionally protected speech and endangers the lives of Jews and Israelis".
In 2016, Shurat Hadin filed a separate $1 billion lawsuit on behalf of five victims of Hamas terrorism and their families. They are seeking damages against Facebook under the U.S. Antiterrorism Act, for Facebook's having provided material support and resources to Hamas in the form of Facebook services, which Hamas then used to carry out their terrorist activities. The US has officially designated Hamas a "Foreign Terrorist Organization" which means that it is a criminal offense to provide material support to such an organization.
Notwithstanding the lawsuits, Facebook's bias is so strong that it recently restored Palestinian Arab terrorist group Fatah's Facebook page, which incites hatred and violence against Jews -- despite having shut it down only three days earlier. In 2016 alone, this page had a minimum of 130 posts glorifying terror and the murder of Jews.
It is only a small step from imposing censorship on social media companies to asking the same of email providers, or ordering postal authorities to screen letters, magazines and brochures in the event that citizens spread supposed "xenophobia" and "fake news". There is ample precedent for such a course of action on the continent: During the Cold War, people living behind the Iron Curtain had their private letters opened by the communist authorities; those passages deemed to be out of line with the communist orthodoxy, were simply blacked out.
Who would have thought that more than a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), Western Europe would be reinventing itself in the image of the Soviet Union?
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.