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Freedom of Speech Cannot Justify Hate Speech: Germany Fights Hate Speech


A new law called, "Enforcement on Social Networks" (shortly referred as NetzDG, an abbreviation of its full German name) came into force in Germany this month. The law presupposes fines of up to €50 million by the country's Ministry of Justice for social media platforms that fail to block or remove illegal hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a complaint about "obviously criminal content," Engadget reports. In addition the law presupposes that the social networks also have to publish a report every six months detailing how many complaints they receive and how they deal with them.

The main target of the law are considered main social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter that have become a battleground for angry debates about Germany's recent influx of more than 1 million refugees, with authorities struggling to keep up with the flood of criminal complaints. According to various statistics hate crimes in Germany increased by over 300 percent in the last two years, US News reports.

So far the law has become a topic of active debates in Germany. The critics of the law argue that the law can have drastic consequences for online freedom of speech. In its turn Facebook administration also opposed the law, arguing that the bill would simply encourage sites to simply take down content to avoid the fines. "It would have the effect of transferring responsibility for complex legal decisions from public authorities to private companies," a Facebook spokesperson told on the occasion, Engadget reports.

In response to all the criticism, German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, who was the driving force behind the bill, noted: "Freedom of speech ends where the criminal law begins," US News reports.

Gerd Billen, a State Secretary in the German Ministry of Justice, also downplayed the concerns about freedom of speech, and pointed out that social media companies already censor content that is perfectly legal: "For example, Facebook doesn't accept naked people on their platform. They can decide if they don't want it, so they delete it," BBC reports.

In is interesting to note that the problem is not voiced only in Germany. For example, the leaders of the UK, France and Italy raised the issue in the recent UN summit noting that more should be done to tackle the spread of online extremism, Tech Crunch reports. In its turn the European Commission put out new guidance for social media platforms urging them to be more pro-active about removing "illegal content" — including by developing tools to automatic identification and prevent re-uploading of problem content, the same source reports.

Despite all the criticism, one should admit that an important problem is raised, which need to be resolved to avoid even worse consequences. Moreover, the scope of the problem should be extended to the punishment and fines for various officials, who spread hate speech on the highest level against the nations they consider their enemies.

In the end it should be noted that although there is no universally accepted definition for "hate speech" (it varies based on the legislation of each country), the international law not only allows, but actually requires, states to ban certain speech which  undermines the right of others to equality or to freedom from discrimination.

Still to be more precise, we can refer to the definition of the "hate speech" provided by the European Court of Human Rights, adopted by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, which considers "hate speech" as: "all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility towards minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin."

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