Germany is planning a new law calling for social networks like Facebook to remove slanderous or threatening online postings quickly or face fines of up to $53 million.
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"This (draft law) sets out binding standards for the way operators of social networks deal with complaints and obliges them to delete criminal content," Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement announcing the planned legislation on Tuesday.
Failure to comply could see a social media company fined up to $53 million, and the company's chief representative in Germany fined up to $5 million.
Germany already has some of the world's toughest hate speech laws covering defamation, slander, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, backed up by prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities. It now aims to update these rules for the social media age.
The issue has taken on more urgency amid concern about the spread of fake news and racist content on social media, which often targets more than 1 million migrants who arrived in Germany in the last two years, as well as members of the Jewish community. The Central Council of Jews in Germany welcomed the new law.
"We do not want an internet police or thought control," the council's president, Josef Schuster, said. "But when hatred is stoked, and the legal norms in our democracy threaten to lose their relevance, then we need to intervene."
In late 2015, Germany pressed Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube to sign up to a code of conduct, which included a pledge to delete hate speech from their websites within 24 hours.
The draft rules would turn the code of conduct into legal obligations to delete or remove illegal content, to report regularly on the volume of filed complaints and they also demand that sites make it easier for users to complain about offensive content.
Social media firms rush to respond
A survey by the justice ministry's youth protection agency, released on Tuesday, found that YouTube was able to remove around 90 percent of illegal postings within a week, while Facebook deleted or blocked just 39 percent of content deemed criminal under the law and Twitter only 1 percent.
Social networks have raced to improve technology and user feedback on their sites to detect and remove abusive content.
"The draft law has only just been announced and we are analyzing the details now," a YouTube spokesman said in a statement. "We will continue to improve our systems to ensure that illegal hate speech is dealt with quickly."
Twitter declined to comment on the proposed law.
It has responded in recent months with automated tools to identify profiles engaging in abusive behavior, new filtering options to screen out anonymous profiles or to block offensive content, and by responding directly to user complaints.
Facebook was not immediately available to comment on the draft law, elements of which had been signaled previously.
In January, Facebook announced a partnership with German third-party fact-checking organization Correctiv, promising to update its social media platforms in Germany "within weeks" to reduce the dissemination of fake news.
Maas and other members of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition have called for social networks to be held to higher content standards demanded of media broadcasters instead of hands-off rules applied to telecom operators.
Among Germany's political establishment, there is concern that fake news and racist content on social media could influence public opinion in this year's election campaign. The government, however, would have to move very quickly if it wants to get the law passed before campaigning for the September election begins.