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Facebook can block hate speech, even if it's not illegal, court rules

Although an anti-immigrant comment doesn't break German law, Facebook can still delete it.

Facebook is having a rollercoaster of a time in Germany with the decisions of various courts about hate speech on its platform and about the company's response.

In the latest ruling, published on Monday, a Frankfurt regional court says Facebook may block a user's account for 30 days over that user's hate speech, even if the comment in question falls short of breaking German hate-speech laws.

Back in April, a Berlin court told Facebook not to block a user and delete an anti-immigrant comment over that comment's hateful tone. The comment arguably violated Facebook's community standards, but not Germany's hate-speech laws.

Then in May, a Hamburg court said Facebook was not doing enough to block a comment calling Alice Weidel, a leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, a "Nazi swine".

This week's ruling involves a comment posted under an article about a clash between asylum seekers and police in Dresden. The comment said the use of water and clubs against the asylum seekers would quickly restore order, and called for their expulsion from the country.

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Facebook blocked the user's account for 30 days, so the user tried to get an injunction against Facebook for doing so.

The court turned down that request, saying the comment fulfilled the characteristics of hate speech as described in Facebook's terms of use.

"The average reader can only interpret the statement as saying water cannons, clubs and possibly further measures should be applied against refugees," the court said.

On the other hand, it pointed out, the comment was not illegal, because it took place in the context of a factual event and did not extend beyond "polemical and exaggerated criticism".

So, in short, the user's free expression rights protected him against state censorship but not against Facebook's rules. The court also took into account Facebook's rights, specifically the freedom to conduct its business.

The decision is not final, and Facebook declined to offer a statement on it.

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Facebook and other big online platforms have for the past year had to make speedy decisions about the removal of illegal hate speech, under a law called the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) that threatens them with fines of up to €50m ($58.4m) if they fail to scrub it quickly enough once notified about the comments.

Facebook published its first NetzDG transparency report in July, saying in the first half of this year it received 113 complaints from organizations and 773 complaints from individuals.

The company said it has 65 people who analyze the complaints, and the team blocked around 21 percent of the comments that people had complained about.

A study conducted this year shows a strong correlation between xenophobic sentiment and Facebook use in Germany. Towns where the inhabitants use Facebook more are much more likely to be the scene of attacks on refugees. The correlation specifically applied to Facebook; not to overall internet use.

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