The German government has approved a bill to force social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to report criminal posts to the police, in a move that some critics say could pave the way for internet censorship.
Under the planned new law, which is the toughest of its kind in the world, social media platforms will not only have to delete certain kinds of hate speech but also flag the content to the Office of the Federal Criminal Police (BKA).
Posts that companies will be required to report include those indicating preparations for a terrorist attack and the “formation of criminal and terrorist groups”, as well as those featuring instances of racial incitement and the distribution of child pornography.
The networks would also have to give the BKA “the last IP address and port number most recently assigned to the user profile”.
The bill is almost certain to be passed by the Bundestag after cabinet approval on Wednesday.
Germany is at the forefront of global efforts to police the internet, but experts say some of its new legislation gives too much power to social networks to decide what constitutes illegal content — a role that they say should be the preserve of the courts.
Bernhard Rohleder, managing director of Bitkom, said the law “breaks with principles of our law-based state”, arguing that it was up to prosecutors to interpret and enforce applicable law, “not private companies”.
As a result of the legislation, he added, “the platforms concerned will be tempted to report too much rather than too little user data to the law enforcement authorities — out of fear of fines”.
Authorities, however, say they need new, tougher tools to deal with a steep rise in online hate speech and anti-Semitic attacks. “We have to drain the breeding ground on which extremism thrives,” Christine Lambrecht, justice minister, said. “We have to stop the spiral of hatred and violence.”
The proposed new law encapsulates the dilemma authorities face when trying to balance people’s right to free speech against others’ desire to be protected from harmful material.
Berlin has taken the view that freedom of expression cannot be used to justify the distribution of criminal content. But Bitkom’s Mr Rohleder said the new law risked becoming a “blueprint for restricting free speech on the internet”.
The measures contained in the bill were first proposed in the aftermath of a terror attack in the east German city of Halle in October, when a gunman targeted a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Ms Lambrecht stressed that the law would for the first time make threats of sexual assault and physical violence a punishable offence. “Social networks will have to report all threats of rape, death threats and racial hate speech to the BKA,” she said.
Facebook declined to comment. But in the past it has said that an obligation to report all content that might be illegal to law enforcement authorities “raises a number of legal, practical and societal questions that need to be addressed”.
This is not the first time that Germany has stirred controversy with a clampdown on social media. Under the Network Enforcement Act, which came into force in 2018, platforms such as Facebook are required to remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of being notified or face fines of up to €50m.
At the time it was the toughest clampdown on hate speech by a western government. But critics said that platforms would err on the side of caution and delete anything even mildly controversial to avoid fines.
This month the government proposed a draft “digital law” designed to toughen control of abusive, anti-competitive behaviour by big internet companies.
The law would strengthen the intervention powers of Germany’s competition watchdog, the Federal Cartel Office, which would, for example, acquire the ability to prohibit platforms from giving preferential treatment to their own products.