The German government has set out its new measures to tackle free speech on the internet. Opposition politicians say the plans are long overdue.
Tightening of gun laws, more protection for political figures at all levels and an obligation to report online criminal content for social media networks such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter: those were just some of the measures announced by the German government on Wednesday as part of a new strategy which aims to combat "far-right extremism and hate speech on the internet".
For more than a year, Germany's Interior and Justice Ministries have wrangled over the new bill, but recent events in Germany resulted in the Cabinet upping the tempo and hashing out a new packet months earlier than planned.
"After the synagogue attack in Halle, it was important that the government's words were followed by actions," German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) said on Wednesday.
Similarly, Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) said the German government "is confronting right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism by all means enabled by of the rule of law."
"What the disinhibition and unleashing of hatred in the net can lead to was shown again in the terrible attack on the Jewish community in Halle," she added.
Several new measures are included in the new package which will see Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, taking on a more prominent role in the monitoring and prosecution of free speech online.
What's included in the new measures?
- According to the package, online service providers such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter will be obliged to report "hate speech" to German authorities, and also pass on the IP address of the conspicuous user. Until now, such social media giants have only been required to delete "illegal speech" within a certain time period.
- Gun laws will be tightened, with each request for a weapons permit to be checked by the BfV.
- Existing prevention programs that aim to tackle patriotism and anti-Jew views, renmity towards any nonwhite group will be developed and financing "maintained at a high level."
Opposition demanding more
Already on Wednesday, opposition politicians were voicing their skepticism over how the obligation to report "hate" would be implemented. Konstantin von Notz, a Green Party politician who serves as the party's internet policy spokesperson, told Deutschlandfunk radio that the online "big players" have so far been dealt with "very mildly," adding that financial penalties for not reporting and deleting "hate speech" should be in the "high tens and hundreds of millions."
"Otherwise you won't be able to hold these companies to account…This is the only lever you can use to deal with corporations that follow an economic, stock company logic," von Notz said, adding that the measures were "long overdue."
The business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) also expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the new measures. "Obligating sites to disclose information will not effectively combat hate crime," said FDP politican Benjamin Strasser.
Meanwhile, Germany's Data Protection Commission said it will be observing the developments closely as Wednesday's proposals move toward becoming law.
"At this point it's too early to say whether this is good or bad," commission spokesperson Dirk Hensel told DW. "But there will certainly be questions to be asked regarding the ethics of private companies deeming what counts as a conspicuous post on social media."
Complications could also arise if a referral turns out to be a mistake, by which point private data will already have been shared between private companies and German domestic intelligence.