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Social Media Firms Face $53 Million Fines in Germany for Fake News, Hate Speech

German justice minister Heiko Maas wants to punish social-media platforms that fail to block false and defamatory content

The German government is taking aim at fake news and hate speech on social media and looks set to slap significant punitive fines on companies that don’t do enough to combat illicit content.

Federal Minister of Justice Heiko Maas presented a bill on Tuesday intended to strengthen the crackdown on hate speech and fake news on social-media platforms.

The Ministry of Justice said the bill established standards for “effective and transparent” complaint management and required operators of social-media networks to report quarterly on the handling of complaints about illegal content.

Companies could face punitive fines if they do not comply with the law. Operators of social networks that do not create effective complaint management systems or do not delete criminal content would be committing an administrative offense. Responsible individuals and the companies themselves could face fines of up to €5 million ($5.3 million) and €50 million ($53 million), respectively.

“In a lively democracy, freedom of expression also protects repulsive and ugly comments,” Maas said. “But freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins. For criminal incitement and libel, there must be as little room on social networks as there is on the street.”

Maas said the biggest problem was that social network operators “do not take the complaints of their own users seriously.”

He added that while the commitments so far undertaken by companies have led to initial improvements, they remain insufficient. Recently published statistics indicate very little illicit content has actually been deleted from social-media networks and that companies have reacted too slowly.

The bill, which is now headed to parliamentary deliberations, comes a week after a German court rejected a temporary injunction against Facebook in a case brought by a Syrian refugee who sued the company for failing to remove fake posts linking him to crimes and terrorist attacks.

In a preliminary ruling, the Würzburg district court said that Facebook was neither a “perpetrator nor a participant” in what it nevertheless described as an “indisputable defamation” by Facebook users. Facebook was simply acting as a hosting provider that is not responsible for pre-emptively blocking offensive content under European law, the court added.

Anas Modamani, a 19-year-old from Damascus, took a selfie with Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 at a refugee shelter in the Berlin. The photo later appeared in posts shared on Facebook via anonymous accounts falsely claiming that Modamani was responsible for the Brussels Airport bombing in March 2016 and setting a homeless man on fire in Berlin in December.

Facebook has said it is seeking to improve its complaint management system, telling Spiegel Online that it plans to have more than 700 employees by the end of the year in Berlin to handle reported content.

Not everyone in Merkel’s cabinet sees eye to eye on the new justice minister’s bill. Minister for Economics Brigitte Zypries recently warned against imposing too stringent regulations on social-network operators.

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