Last month the German cabinet approved legislation expected to become law this summer that would give the government the right to penalize social media companies if they fail to remove hate speech or fake news in a timely manner.
Specifically, the proposal would allow Berlin to fine American social media juggernauts, Facebook, Google and Twitter—the most popular social media in Germany—as much as $53 million if they do not remove such content within 24 hours of a complaint.
This action underscores the broad differences among democratic republics that espouse freedom of expression—but sometimes limit its practice. Although virtually all nations have constitutional protection of speech, what constitutes free expression is defined broadly by different government and their citizens.
The German Network Enforcement Law raises several important questions that challenge the courts, media organizations and citizens.
How do you define hate speech and fake news? The latter seems straight forward—so-called news stories that contain bogus claims and demonstrably false. The former, however, is more nebulous and has been litigated continually across the decades.
Who would determine if hate speech or fake news is disseminated by social media? The German law says Facebook, Google and Twitter would have to remove such content if there is a complaint. But what constitutes a complaint?
What legal recourse do social media have if they disagree? Would the questionable content remain online during the appeals process?
We should be concerned
The United States may soon face similar challenges. Although President Trump takes full advantage of Twitter, to express his opinions on scores of topics and individuals, as candidate and U.S. president he has criticized many news organizations and threatened to restrict their rights.
And other members of his administration also have been all too willing to attack news media.
The press historically has been the target of criticism from the full continuum of ideologues. The media seek the truth not universal popularity or approval. It is their constitutional obligation to a free people.
But when government leaders themselves challenge our constitutional freedoms, we all have reason to fear that the German scenario may be a preview of a menacing future here at home.