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Germany kicks year off with strict online hate speech law

Social media companies failing to remove offending posts in 24 hours risk huge fines.

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If you report a social media post with hate speech and it's not taken down in 24 hours, the company could bear a hefty fine in Germany.

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Social media companies may have been dreading the fireworks marking the start of the new year.

On Jan. 1, Germany began enforcing strict rules that could fine major internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube up to 50 million euros ($60 million, £44 million, AU$77 million) if they don't remove posts containing hate speech within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. 

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The new hate speech law, which passed in June, actually went into effect in October but companies had until Jan. 1 to prepare for it. The law requires companies to maintain an "effective and transparent procedure for dealing with complaints" that users can access readily at anytime. Upon receiving a complaint, social media companies must remove or block "obviously illegal content" within 24 hours, though they have up to a week when dealing with "complex cases."

The rule underscores the new environment social media companies face in 2018 and beyond. Tech giants have been under scrutiny as they grapple with their scale and influence globally and there are new threats of regulation from governments worldwide. In the US, lawmakers have taken a harder stance toward the companies ever since Russian agents abused the sites to try to sway the 2016 presidential election.

The massive amount of hate content, in particular, has been a problem for the sites. In June, Facebook said it removes 66,000 such posts every week. The company said it wants to do better but adds that the task is not easy. Last month, Facebook added new tools to try to curb abuse on the site. One new feature tries to make sure that when you block someone who's been harassing you, the person can't simply create a new account and continue the harassment. The tool does that by looking at various signals, like the person's IP address.

Also last month, Twitter escalated its fight against hate, enforcing an updated policy that bans people from promoting violence and hate in their usernames and bios, and threatens to remove accounts if users tweeted hate speech, symbols and images.

Germany's government isn't the only one that wants social media companies to do more about hate speech. While the European Union in mid-2017 acknowledged Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft for doing a better job, the EU said it managed to block twice the volume of hate content at a faster rate than those companies did in the beginning of the year. 

"We're committed to being part of the solution to illegal hate speech and extremist content online -- around the world, and in Germany, working within its new legal framework," a YouTube spokesperson told CNET in an emailed statement. "We'll continue to invest heavily in teams and technology to allow us to go further and faster in removing content that breaks our rules or German law, and by working with government, law enforcement, civil society groups and other companies."

Twitter declined to comment. 

The increased criticism, meanwhile, has caused Facebook to become more introspective on the negative effect it can have on people's well-being. The social network said last month that Facebook can play a negative role if people tend to scroll through the feed passively and in isolation, without interacting with other users or sharing messages. The company also introduced a "snooze" feature last month, which lets you mute annoying friends for up to 30 days. 

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CNET's Richard Nieva contributed to this report.

First published Jan. 1 at 10:15 p.m. PT.
Updated, Jan. 2 at 2:07 a.m., 6:50 a.m. and 10:17 a.m. PT: Adds comment from YouTube, information about fines and more background throughout. 

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