Facebook, Google fight back: 'Draft hate speech law will gag free expression'

With a proposed new law on online hate speech heading to Germany's parliament for approval, tech firms and rights groups are making a stand.

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The German parliament still needs to pass the proposed law, which would bring in huge fines for web firms that don't deal with hate speech and other illegal content.

Image: Getty

A coalition of tech companies and human rights groups has pushed back against a proposed hate-speech law in Germany, arguing that it could have "grave consequences for the right to freedom of expression in Germany, across the European Union, and worldwide".

German chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet approved the proposal, drafted by justice minister Heiko Maas, earlier in April. It now needs the German parliament's green light, which must come soon because federal elections are due in September.

If passed, the law would allow fines of up to €50m ($54m) for web firms that don't properly deal with hate speech and other "criminal" content that people upload to their platforms. The main companies in the government's sights are Facebook and Twitter, which Maas has previously criticized for ineffectively dealing with the hate-speech problem.

The German draft law follows long-running attempts to get the likes of Facebook and Google to deal with the hate speech and race-baiting 'fake news' problems on their own.

The government wants them to take down hate speech, which is illegal in Germany, within 24 hours of it being reported. However, although the companies agreed to do so a year back, the government says Facebook only manages this in 39 percent of cases, and Twitter in just one percent of cases.

Thursday's criticism of the proposal comes from the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a coalition of business, academia and civil society that counts among its members Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

Other members include the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch.

The GNI said the law would, as drafted, force a "wide array of online platforms and services" to remove content that includes things like "defamation of the state and its symbols".

"The practical effect of this bill would be to outsource decisions on the balance between the fundamental right of freedom of expression and other legally protected rights to private companies," said Mark Stephens, the UK lawyer who chairs the GNI's board, in a statement.

"Companies facing the threat of multi-million euro fines will be compelled to broadly censor the internet, restricting the use of their services for any content that could be considered controversial."

The GNI's membership and mission are somewhat controversial. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) used to be a member, but withdrew following the revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The EFF had two major criticisms of the coalition: that the GNI's corporate members were unable to disclose how the US authorities were meddling in their security practices, and that many of these companies engage in censorship all the time, to get an easier ride in certain markets.

Facebook, for example, censors nudity on its platform, even in countries where such things are widely accepted and legal. Google won't allow sites carrying Google Ads to show nudity, either, and until very recently Microsoft blocked sex-related search terms on Bing across the Middle East.

Last year, New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights also pulled out of the GNI, complaining that it didn't force its corporate members to stick to its transparency and accountability standards.

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