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German Officials Seek to Control ‘Fake News’ Online — and Hope the EU Will Follow Suit

German officials are following through on their promise to do something about fake news and “hate speech” on the Internet. A proposed law that Angela Merkel supports would impose fines as high as $53 million on social-media networks that do not satisfactorily police what their users post.

Wednesday, Merkel’s cabinet approved the “draft bill” likely to become law. Germany already has speech restrictions, but this bill would go a step further by making companies such as Twitter and Facebook responsible to remove offending content within 24 hours. If they fail to do so, they could face multimillion-dollar fines.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas justified this by saying, “Social-network providers are responsible when their platforms are misused to propagate hate crimes and fake news.” He went on to say that this would work best if European Union laws, not merely German ones, combated fake news. Continent-wide censorship — what could go wrong?

It’s disheartening to see yet another restriction placed on free speech in Europe, but this law has other problems. The threat of fines over $50 million to social-media companies is excessive, and it would almost certainly lead to Facebook and Twitter devoting an outsized portion of their resources to policing users’ content. The law would place responsibility for private persons’ “hate” in the corporate bodies whose servers carry the messages — making overzealous control of political posts a likely result.

German authorities should realize that restricting free speech backfires. It is an international embarrassment that Germany is allowing a criminal probe against satirist Jan Böhmermann for reading a poem mocking Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Germany should be taking this opportunity to roll back their speech restrictions, not expand them. Policing “fake” and “hateful” ideas on the Internet is a fool’s errand, and a Europe-wide movement to prove otherwise would lead to myriad unintended consequences.


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