Germany to Fine Websites That Feature Hate Speech

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The end of last year saw several social media and user-shared content sites enact new rules to help secure their communities against radical or offensive material. Youtube, after losing several advertisers due to upsetting content masquerading as child-friendly material, purged thousands of the offending channels and promised to increase both their physical moderator staff and improve their automated content regulation software. Facebook likewise moved towards improving their ability to regulate offensive or misleading posts with a push to hire 10,000 additional staff moderators. The site also launched a new chat app designed specifically for underage users, giving parents unprecedented ability to control who their children can communicate with.

Barring clearly illegal content, websites are for the most part immune to legal action for harmful or offensive actions taken by users. What is interesting is that, despite the relative liberty allowed by sites like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter thanks to their limited legal responsibility for user content, these sites have largely decided to move towards regulation of their own volition. However, new legislation set to take effect in Germany this year could provide the first substantial legal precedent requiring websites to more heavily moderate their users.

Last summer, German officials passed a law that would enable them to levy fines against the companies behind major websites like Facebook and Twitter if users are allowed to violate the country’s stringent hate speech laws. The legislation officially went into the books in October of last year, but the government gave companies until the new year to prepare their moderation tools for the task. According to the new law, any website with a following of at least two million users can be penalized for violations. This means that massive social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Tumblr could face heavy fines given their substantial user bases which, for Facebook, could prove devastating as their user count ranks in the billions.

Reaction to the legislation is so far mixed. Many users have naturally come out against the law, calling it a dangerous overstep into the territory of free speech. Government officials, however, have been more supportive. United Kingdom lawmakers have publicly derided social media sites for their lack of effective moderation, which leaves the possibility that they could join Germany in enacting a similar law. The U.K. has its own censorship plans for 2018, though these are largely aimed at regulating pornographic content rather than social media.

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