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Germany could fine social media companies millions for hate speech

Companies must remove or block "unlawful content" within 24 hours or face fines, according to a new law.

Heiko Maas, Germany's federal minister of justice and consumer protection, said the law is meant to "prevent a climate of fear and intimidation." 

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter could be subject to fines in Germany if the companies don't remove or block hate speech from the platforms within 24 hours, according to a law passed in Germany today.

Penalities could reach as high as €5 million (roughly $5.7 million, £4.4 million or AU$7.4 million), according to the Bundestag, the German parliament.

The act also requires companies to maintain "an effective and transparent procedure for dealing with complaints, which is readily recognizable, directly accessible and constantly available to users," according to a statement from the Bundestag.

Heiko Maas, Germany's federal minister of justice and consumer protection, said the law is meant to "prevent a climate of fear and intimidation." 

"In an open society, in a democracy, disputes and debate are indispensible," Maas said in a speech to the Bundestag. "Freedom of expression also includes sharp and ugly expression. ... But freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins."

Social media and other internet companies have been grappling with hate speech for months with mixed success. It's a problem as old as the internet itself, but it's been immensely compounded in the last few years as social media has become deeply woven into people's everyday lives.

At the start of June, the European Union acknowledged that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft have gotten better at it, now removing hate speech at double the volume, and at a faster clip, than they did six months ago. Still, the EU said, much progress remains to be done.

Earlier this week, Facebook, which now has 2 billion monthly users, said that it's deleting 66,000 posts deemed hateful every week but that the task is a daunting one and that it's not doing as well as it would like.

In response to Friday's news from Germany, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement that the company shares the German government's goal to fight hate speech and has made "substantial progress" in removing illegal content. 

"We believe the best solutions will be found when government, civil society and industry work together and that this law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important societal problem," according to the statement. "We feel that the lack of scrutiny and consultation do not do justice to the importance of the subject. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure safety for the people on our platform."

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