ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Lessons from Germany

Social Media Accountability

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On 31 December 2017, Germany’s Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in Sozialen Netzwerken (Network Enforcement Act) came into force after having been passed by the Bundestag in June 2017 (McKay 2018).1 The law, which is applicable to “social networks” (such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and others),2 requires them to remove “unlawful content” within 24 hours of receiving a complaint about the content on their website. The failure to do so involves massive penalties, going up to millions of euros. For the moment, the law is applicable only to social networks with more than two million users in Germany and, in addition, they are also required to put in place an “effective and transparent procedure” for handling complaints of unlawful content from users. It is important to note that the law itself does not define what “unlawful content” is. Rather, it relies on the pre-existing laws that criminalise some forms of speech, such as hate speech, incitement to violence, etc.

Ever since it was first mooted, the law has been criticised on the issue that it amounts to a “privatisation” of censorship (Toor 2017). Critics include not just the social network platforms themselves, but also digital rights activists in Europe and around the world who have expressed fears that this may end up increasing the power of social media platforms to determine what content they find acceptable and censor accordingly. The heavy fines and short timeline mean—as one activist says, “they’ll shoot first and ask questions later”—that companies running such social networks will err on the side of caution and censor content simply on the basis of a complaint, rather than really examine whether the content might infringe the laws (Toor 2017). It is also contended that this effectively means that the interpretation of the laws concerning free speech has been left to the discretion of private corporations rather than public institutions.

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Updated On : 31st Jan, 2018

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