For free speech advocates, there was another chilling development last week in the expanding censorship of social media and the criminalization of speech in the West. The government is investigating Beatrix von Storch (the deputy leader of far-right party AfD) for a tweet posted on New Year’s Eve in which she accused police of appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men.” The statement was barred on Twitter and Von Storch and others were barred on Twitter and Facebook. Once again, raising the free speech concerns is not an endorsement of such offensive posts. Rather, the Germans have taken their controversial speech regulations and have extended them to social media — forcing these companies to become active players in the censoring of political speech. People may have no objection (and even relish) the crackdown on the AfD but the implications for speech is far greater than these individuals.
Under the new NetzDG, or the Network Enforcement Act, social media sites must delete offensive posts within 24 hours after receiving objections from users. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies can be fined as much as €50 million ($60 million) if they fail to remove hate speech and fake news posts. Given the active work of various groups and individuals to take offense at opposing views, the companies will be inundated with such objections as everyone seeks to silence those on the other side of issues like immigration or homosexuality or other issues. Faced with crippling fines, the social media sites are already erring on the side of censorship which is precisely what the Germans wanted to guarantee with NetzDG.
I have been a long critic of Germany’s criminal speech laws, including its long criminalization of Nazi symbols. While I am certainly sympathetic to the Germans in seeking to end the scourge of fascism, there has been little evidence that the German laws prohibiting certain symbols and phrases have achieved anything other than expanding government power over political speech. It has also created an insatiable appetite for censorship among German citizens. I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications.
It is not confined to Germany. We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targeted with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here).
Immigration remains a deeply divisive issue in Germany. Clearly many support this party in their hardline views of immigration. However, the new law has now prompted not just Von Storch to be censored by many in her party. In the meantime, her reference to Muslim immigrants as “barbaric” has prompted yet another criminal investigation. The Police in Cologne have accused von Storch of inciting hatred.
Germany has long been the leading nation in the West aggressively fighting against free speech. Merkel’s disgraceful comments with regard to a German comedian recently reflects her dismissive attitude toward this defining right. The German people have been raised in an environment that has long criminalized speech (starting with Nazi symbols and then expanding to other forms of “hate speech”). In the past, this slippery slope toward widespread censorship was dismissed as a German problem. Now however the Germans are threatening the entirety of the Internet and social media by threatening prohibitive fines unless companies like Facebook become agents of censorship. The effort could well cripple the most important development of free speech in history of the world. This one country could effectively destroy the open forum that has long existed on the Internet. It would also achieve such governments like China and Iran have long sought — effective government control of speech on major websites.
In other words, it is not about von Storch. It is about speech.