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Politics & Policy

Facebook, Free Speech and Germany: “We must not mistakenly apply tolerance”

Facebook is a private company. It is (or it ought to be) entitled, within what the law allows, to publish or decline to publish what it wants. 

That said, there is something a little creepy about this.


Europe’s refugee crisis has spilled over to Facebook. In Germany, where thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing conflict in their own country are being offered asylum, Facebook has found itself being pressured by the government to do more to combat hate speech against immigrants. Yesterday the WSJ reported that Facebook has agreed to work with the German Justice Ministry to fight xenophobic and racist messages being posted on its platform…

Facebook also noted that its existing community standards prohibit hate speech against protected groups and the incitement to violence against others. However in recent weeks, as the WSJ notes, the German government has criticized Facebook for not being fast or comprehensive enough in removing hate speech from its platform. Hence the government  [is] now co-ordinating the creation of a task force — that will involve Facebook and other Internet competitors — aimed at evaluating whether content flagged as inappropriate should be considered acceptable freedom of speech. Or whether it’s actually illegal hate speech under German law.

The problem here is that the definition of ‘hate speech’ in Europe, not a continent with much attachment to free speech, can move far beyond threats and incitements to violence. 


Commenting on this in a statement, Facebook’s head of policy in Germany, Eva-Maria Kirschsieper, said: “We are looking forward to our meeting with Federal Minister of Justice Heiko Maas as we believe that the best solutions are often found when people in business, politics and civil society all work together on common challenges like online safety.”

In parallel Facebook said it would be setting up its own task force, inviting local community organizations to be involved in finding solutions to what it said is a “complex” issue. It added that only “a very small minority of people have posted content that appears to cross the line of acceptable speech” — noting also there’s been plenty of positive sentiment expressed about refugees via Facebook — and emphasized that it welcomes “political debate on our platform”, adding it believes it is “especially important to allow this to happen when issues are controversial”.

…Working with local community organizations in Germany is one way for Facebook to be seen to be sensitive to local realities — in a bid to steer off further criticism from the government — while also spreading some of the burden of adapting its operations for different markets. Convening a mixed group to tackle a speech-based issue also likely allows Facebook to speak up for the pro-speech position, given that the German groups will be providing more expert input on what’s inappropriate speech under local laws and within local communities.

“Facebook believes that the best way to address complex issues like hate speech on the Internet is for companies, NGOs and politicians to work together sharing their expertise in different aspects of the problem,” it said. “The aim of this group is to find workable solutions to counter xenophobia and racism and the way in which this may be expressed online. Facebook will be inviting community organisations such as Netz Gegen Nazis, Laut gegen Nazis, and FSM to join the group as well as representatives of political parties in Germany, and of other online services. We are also inviting the German Ministry of Justice to participate in that dialogue.”

Will they, I wonder, be inviting representatives from AfD, the party formerly defined by its euroskepticism that has (essentially) redefined itself as a party opposed to mass immigration?

Judging by this report from Breitbart, I’m guessing not:

An organisation run by a former Stasi agent has been recruited by the German government to patrol Facebook in a bid to stamp out “xenophobic” comments. Those caught posting material that the government disagrees with are likely to face criminal prosecution.

Germany is set to welcome one million new immigrants this year, a move that has not been without controversy. Determined to see his fellow Germans embrace their new multicultural homeland, Justice Minister Heiko Maas has decided to crack down on those citizens who criticise the influx, especially those who take to their own private Facebook accounts to do so.

Maas has recruited the help of an organisation – Network Against Nazis (Netz Gegen Nazis, or NAN) – to aid him in his crackdown. NAN was founded by, and according to it’s website works in partnership with, the Amaedu Antonio Foundation, run by Anetta Kahane, who between 1974 and 1982 worked for the Stasi under the code name ‘Victoria’ [According to Wikipedia she was an “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter”​, an “unofficial collaborator” with the Stasi, no agent, but still…]

Last week Maas wrote to Richard Allen, Facebook’s public policy director, who is based in Dublin, to complain that not enough was being done to root out “xenophobic” comments on the social media site, Deutsche Welle reported.

The implementation of community standards “can apparently not be relied on,” Maas said, “even though many posts contain comments that constitute the criminal offense of incitement to hatred.” He reminded Facebook of its legal obligation to delete posts which fall foul of the law.

Haas insisted that he did not oppose free speech, but went on to add: “The Internet, however, is not a legal vacuum in which racist incitement and criminal utterances can be spread in an uncontrolled manner. In the case of internet users who propagate xenophobia and offensive racism, we must not mistakenly apply tolerance.”

“We must not mistakenly apply tolerance”.

Orwell sighs. 

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