Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) shares ended lower on Tuesday after the German government presented a draft law that would impose fines of up to €50mln on social networks that fail to delete hate speech or fake news
Although not aimed specifically and exclusively at Facebook, the proposed law amounts to the most draconian clampdown by a European country against Facebook and other social media platforms in the battle against falsehood commentary.
If successfully passed by parliament, the new rules could also offer impetus for the Trump Administration to review US statutes, where the President has accused media of feeding fake news and social media platforms of replicating it.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said social networks were not doing enough to crack down on incitement and slander posted by their users.
He branded the content “criminal” and said it was not being deleted fast enough or at all.
The timing of this attack on media and social media is well-timed, cynics might argue. The law reflects mounting concern in German political circles about the potential influence fake news and hate speech could have on Germany’s federal election later this year, where Angela Merkel’s ruling conservatives are facing a strong challenge from the populist, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany.
The fear is that Internet hoaxes and lies – such as the fictitious news story claiming that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump – could play as large a role in Germany as they played during the US election campaign.
Germany has, since the 1949 constitution, taken a hardline on various political statement, such as any affiliation or recognition for the disgraced Nazi Party, or certain forms of racial hatred.
But internet experts in Germany have warned that to demand, as the draft law does, that offensive or false statements are removed by social media platforms within 24 hours is as operationally impractical as it is in effective.
With 1bn posts on the likes of Facebook a day, such companies would have to invest in enormous overhead of staffing to police it, would create a mechanism of censorship, and might fail anyway.
Once something is published, if it is not removed and replaced by a new version stating what has been changed in the content and what it previously erroneously or falsely said, there is a worry that content could be replicated elsewhere.
So simple deletions will not expose fake news and screenshots or other means of copying content will allow it to proliferate domestically and abroad.
One thing which such a law might foster, and to that end might help tighten the export of fake news, is that other European countries or the United States could pass similar laws. The European Union might even agree on a bloc-wide version.
But as has been argued by many civil liberties campaigners since fake news first came to light during the US Presidential elections last year, who is to act as the judge? How untrue is a story or account? Which elements do we retain, which can we prove, and which have no source but equally no evidence to disprove its validity?
These are questions lawmakers will be keen to sidestep and to simply leave the headache – nay nightmare – for IT, media and social media companies to work out for themselves against criticisms from the public about gagging facts and debate.
The details of the proposed law are also somewhat confused. Is it 24 hours or seven days to remove content?
Social platforms would be obliged to investigate all complaints and delete or block all content that is “clearly criminal” within 24 hours. Content that is found to be criminal after being investigated will have to be extinguished or blocked within 7 days. In each case, the user must be informed immediately of any decision.
To fail to do this will land the service that published it a fine of up to 50 mln euros. But perhaps even more draconian, individuals responsible for dealing with complaints could face fines of up to €5mln.
Maas went on to claim that from a recent survey, Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) had been found to have deleted only 1% of criminal content reported by users, and Facebook 39%. Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) performed much better with Youtube achieving 90% clear up of posts reported by users.
What makes a survey like this questionable, however, is that it is based on the clean up of content complained about by users. With Twitter being an open system versus Facebook, it is likely that many people not known to the publisher on Twitter may have seen the content and their reaction could be skewed by not knowing the author.
Facebook shares closed down 0.2% at $139.32 on Tuesday.
Story by ProactiveInvestors