Germany is taking on an important, pioneering role to combat the worst of abuse on social media. Facebook may hate it, and some legitimate concerns apply, but doing nothing is not an option, says DW's Jefferson Chase.
There are lots of reasonable objections that have been made to Germany's new Network Implementation Law, which will hold social media networks like Facebook and Twitter financially accountable if they fail to delete illegal content. But none of them override the need to do something about a situation that has grown intolerable.
Think the word intolerable is an exaggeration? Consider the following: Among the "content" that has been allowed to appear on Facebook this year are live scenes of a father killing his 11-month-old daughter, four people torturing a mentally disabled man, a teenager being gang raped and animals being mutilated. Then there's the plethora of lesser crimes, sometimes deemed "relatively harmless," like revenge porn, cyberbullying, incitements to terrorism and self-harm as well as fake news, slander and hate speech of all shapes and sizes.
Feel a bit nauseous? Good. Then you'll understand why lawmakers in Germany felt they had to intervene.
Every culture limits speech that causes harm. In America, the famous example is that no one is allowed to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater. On Facebook this year you could watch a man fatally setting himself on fire. Social media have enriched peoples' lives in a number of ways, but the fact remains that minimum standards of acceptable speech are being violated there, crassly and constantly. The horrifying has become almost routine.
Cleaning up the internet mess
Arguing Facebook or Twitter or other social networks are only a content-sharing platform and can't do anything about the negative consequences of the service they provide is like saying that a petroleum company shouldn't be held responsible for a tanker ship leaking oil and contaminating an ocean bay because the firm didn't set out to pollute the environment.
Intention makes no difference. Facebook or Twitter may not have started out with the aim of becoming a medium like newspapers or television, but that's what they've become, and, at least in Facebook's case, it's been very lucrative. The company reported that it made $8 billion (7 billion euros) in the first quarter of this year. It can afford to dedicate more money to help clean up the mess it helped create on the internet. Against that backdrop, the million-euro fines foreseen by the law look pretty reasonable.
Critics argue that the law transfers responsibility for determining what is protected by Germany's right to freedom of expression from the state to private companies. The argument is specious. Private institutions from CNN to Germany's Der Spiegel magazine right on down to your local newspaper, should it still exist, constantly have to interpret national laws about what is and isn't acceptable speech. And sanctions like libel and defamation lawsuits await if they get their decisions wrong. The situation should be the same with the large-scale social media platforms covered by the law.
Others detractors worry that the new rules will lead to "overblocking," as social media platforms err on the side of deleting content rather than risking fines. Critics have concerns that politically controversial material might thereby be censored, intentionally or not. Such concerns are legitimate, but the law does contain mechanisms to address them. It requires social media platforms protocol and justify their decisions and appoint easily contactable people to deal with complaints - both about illegal content and wrong-headed deletions.
Anyone who has ever tried to contact Facebook and Twitter knows how nontransparent and hermetic those organizations can be. The law is a start toward social media platforms engaging with the ramifications of their existence. Without legal sanctions, there is no incentive for Facebook, Twitter or any other large platform to change.
It may well be that the platforms are unable to handle monitoring their content on their own. If that's the case, they now have a mechanism for asking for help from the state. That's ultimately in social platforms' own interest. With the law, a discussion between the state and the companies can commence about what needs to be done differently. Without the law, there is no discussion.
Germany can be proud of being the first country in the world to enact this sort of legislation. Friends of mine in the United States say they'd love it if Washington showed similar initiative. The Network Implementation Law won't be perfect. It will require revision. But it's a damn sight better than nothing at all.