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‘State-imposed thought police’: German politicians, activists slam bill on hate speech & fake news

The German government has approved a new bill on combating hate speech and fake news, under which social networks could face hefty fines if they fail to remove offensive content promptly. Critics denounced the bill as a violation of free speech.

The bill, introduced by German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, is aimed at forcing social network giants such as Facebook or Twitter to take more responsibility for the content posted by users and to make it compliant with German law.

"We do not accept the fact that companies in Germany do not adhere to the law. Therefore in future, if it doesn't get better, we will impose high fines on these companies," Maas told German broadcaster ARD’s ‘Morgenmagazin’ show.

“Social-network providers are responsible when their platforms are misused to propagate hate crimes and fake news,” he wrote in an emailed statement to Bloomberg.

Earlier, Maas had already warned that online companies that fail to delete content tagged as offensive by some users within the timeframe set in the new bill would face fines of up to €50 million (US$53 million).

Executives of social media groups also risk individual fines of up to €5 million ($5.3 million) in case of non-compliance.

The proposed legislation says that “openly offensive” content should be deleted by social networks within 24 hours after being reported by users, while content whose nature is not clearly offensive should be examined and removed within a week if its illegality is confirmed.

The legislation also stresses that the authorities should take a “cautious approach” towards fining online giants, and only in cases when they regularly fail to remove explicitly offensive content. Social networks should not be punished if the violations of the new regulations take place only in some “specific individual cases,” it states.

The list of offensive materials includes various forms of hate speech and online incitement of hatred as well as fake news, libel, and defamation, along with child pornography and terrorism-related activities.

However, the task of identifying, examining and removing such content is in fact handed over to social network administrators and the users themselves.

At the same time, the bill obliges social networks to provide users with "an easily recognizable, directly reachable, and constantly available" complaint process for "prosecutable content.”

The legislation also obliges online giants to provide reports to the German authorities concerning how many complaints they receive from users, how many offensive posts they remove and how quickly they do it.

The reports, which should be provided every three months, must also include data on how many employees are tasked with dealing with offensive content in each social network company.

Earlier, Maas admitted that an attempt to make social networks remove offensive content on a voluntary basis “has failed,” as he explained the necessity for the new measures, German media report.

According to a survey conducted by the Justice Ministry, Facebook deleted about 46 percent of offensive and illegal content between July and August 2016, while between February and January 2017 this figure dropped to 39 percent. Twitter reportedly removed only 1 percent of content deemed illegal in recent months. YouTube, however, deleted as much as 90 percent of such material over the same period, as reported by Deutsche Welle.

‘Freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins’
The bill provoked a wave of criticism from opposition politicians, media companies and various network activists.

Renate Kuenast, the Green Party’s legal expert, criticized the legislation by saying that it would effectively limit the freedom of expression.

"My fear, and that of many others, is that in the end the version [Maas] is now presenting will limit freedom of opinion because it will simply become delete, delete, delete," she said, as cited by Deutsche Welle.

She also said that the hefty fines envisaged in the bill would work as “almost an invitation to not only delete real insults, but everything for safety's sake.”

Her words were partly echoed by Google representatives, who warned that the proposed legislation could lead to “overblocking.”

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki called the proposed fines “a heavy burden for the [social network] platforms,” adding that “the platforms could remove content that should not be removed” out of fear of being fined, Der Spiegel reports.

The German Publishers Association (VDZ) went further and denounced the justice minister’s proposal as an attempt to create a “state-imposed private thought police.”

Even some NGOs, such as the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which campaigns against right-wing parties, racism and anti-Semitism, said that the new bill is “in fact a limitation of the freedom of expression.”

In the comments on his new proposal, Maas acknowledged that freedom of expression "has huge significance in our democracy,” adding at the same time that “freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins” and stressing that the new bill would be only the beginning.

According to the German media, the parliament plans to pass the new bill before the summer break. Some critics explain such a “rush” by the government’s desire to make it a law before the elections in September.

New book reveals behind the scenes how Merkel dealt with refugee crisis
Deutsche Welle

In 2015, the German government was faced with a challenge to take in almost 900,000 refugees. A new book reveals the reasoning behind the political decisions made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the crisis.

Back during 2015, when hundreds of thousands of people from Africa, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries were pouring into Germany, the authority of Angela Merkel - until then, a respected politician across party lines - was shaken. Doubt grew considerably towards the government's rationality behind decisions dealing with the crisis. This paved the way for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to rise, where it won seats in regional parliaments, as well as the notion that it could permanently establish itself as a far-right party. This is even as surveys now show support for the AfD to be waning.

Robin Alexander, an editor for the "die Welt” newspaper, has presented a new book on the topic, called "Die Getriebenen. Merkel und die Flüchtlingspolitik," roughly translated as "The Driven Ones: Merkel and Refugee Policy, a Report from the Insides of Power."

The book has rocketed to number one on the bestseller lists in Germany. It has struck a nerve in political discussions and reflects the mood of parts of the country. The right is reading it as way to reckon with Merkel's refugee policy. The liberal center is reading with amazement and probably also political dismay.

A decision made out of fear?

Alexander has meticuously researched the refugee crisis and put together what he found out from the inner corridors of power. A brief summary: at the beginning there was a decision to open the borders as thousands of refugees in Hungary wanted to go to Germany, although there was already an order to close the borders. Merkel and her ministers did not dare to go with the original orders, as they feared the images of rejected refugees could harm them politically. Merkel also didn't dare to say that that this was an exceptional decision, because the Germans' readiness to warmly receive the refugees had really surprised her. Instead, she swam on the wave of the "welcome culture." She did not point out that this was an emergency decision and as a result, more and more came. Uncontrolled. Uncoordinated. Unregistered. The refugee policy got out of hand, even though authorities in the local areas had for months tried to do something extraordinary.

The book gives a detailed description of the political impasses which Angela Merkel maneuvered around. It describes the machine room of power in which Interior Minister Thomas de Maziere, Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble and the active Merkel-follower, chief of the Federal Chancellery, Peter Altmeier bustled. Alexander takes us to secret duels of power behind closed doors, as loyal and critical Schäuble pulled strings to restore the sovereignty to the ministry.

Merkel at the roulette table

Above all, Alexander shows how Merkel would change her course in terms of content but her rhetoric would not. "The borders are open," she said, while the borders closed. "We remain an open country," while fewer and fewer refugees came to Germany. "We remain steadfast in believing that refugees should be helped – with no limits," while the Balkan route was defacto closed in other countries. He describes how Merkel isolated herself in the EU and how she entered the EU-Turkey deal like playing a last bet at a roulette table.

Two politicians play a special role in Alexander's book, the first being head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) Horst Seehofer, who had tried to undermine Merkel at the beginning of the refugee crisis. He was the first critic of her policy, while in parliament an all-party coalition was backing her up without being asked to do so.

The other politician mentioned is the young Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, who challenged Merkel as he closed Austria's borders.

The book describes an important point of history and is a extraordinary and detailed report. It's written splendidly and reads like a criminal novel. It is a deduction of Merkel's policies. The "Report From the Insides of Power” is in reality a report from the depths of helplessness, where things are planned but decided too little and too late. Merkel's refugee policy is not represented as a a masterpiece of heartfelt politics but as a developing and out-of-hand disaster. The publication has already become a standard reference book.

Robin Alexander: Die Getriebenen. Merkel und die Flüchtlingspolitik. Report aus dem Inneren der Macht. Siedler Publishing. 19,90 Euros.

FT View: Time for German leadership

Rob Armstrong gives the FT View on how the relationship between the EU's strongest economy and the rest of the world needs to change.

Germany is an economic giant. It has the fourth biggest economy in the world, and its export volumes rival those of the United States. Its foreign policy, however, speaks quietly. But that might be about to change, and what's more, it should.

Start with military spending. Donald Trump wants NATO members to pull more of their own weight on military spending. If Germany were to go from spending its current 1.2% of GDP to the NATO target of 2% of GDP, that would mean EUR 26 billion of additional military spending every year, the equivalent of the entire Italian army. But a more militarised Germany raises big questions. Traditionally an inward facing Germany has been just fine with Germans, and with the rest of the world. Germany saw its foreign and military policies through a European lens. This is no longer going to work. Germany is too big, Europe too indecisive, and the US is no longer the sheltering hegemon it once was. In the age of Brexit, Trump, and resurgent European nationalism, many observers are looking to Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, to be the leaders of the Western democracies.

But this is not going to work either. Germany is still too constrained by its membership in the European Union and its past. Somewhere between being merely part of Europe and leading the free world, Germany has to find a middle way. Germany should indeed spend more money on security, but it needs to be security defined broadly to include, for example, funding for a proper EU border force, or stabilisation funds for North African countries, such as Libya. Germany is also the only country with the clout to make sure that the West maintains its firm stance towards Russia. It should flex its muscles in this department, particularly in Washington. Similarly, with the odds of an acrimonious divorce between Britain and the EU increasing, Germany can be an important voice for a rational compromise.

Germany is rich, and it commands worldwide respect for its liberal values. It needs to be more imaginative, independent, and outward facing in its foreign policy. That is FT view.
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