Germany has some of the world’s toughest laws covering defamation, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, with prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities. But few online cases are prosecuted.
“There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement, adding that he would seek to push for similar rules at a European level.
The issue has taken on more urgency as German politicians worry that a proliferation of fake news and racist content, particularly about 1 million migrants who have arrived in the last two years, could sway public opinion in the run-up to national elections in September.
However, organizations representing digital companies, consumers and journalists, accused the government of rushing a law to parliament that could damage free speech.
“It is the wrong approach to make social networks into a content police,” said Volker Tripp, head of the Digital Society Association consumer group.
A spokesman for Facebook, which has 29 million active users in Germany – more than a third of the total population – said the company was working hard to remove illegal content, but expressed concern at the draft law.
“This legislation would force private companies rather than the courts to become the judges of what is illegal in Germany,” he said, adding that Facebook’s partner Arvato would employ up to 700 staff in Berlin for “content moderation” by year’s end.
A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment on the legislation, but said the company had made a number of changes in recent weeks, including adding new filtering options, putting limits on accounts it had identified as engaging in abusive behavior and stopping those users from creating new accounts.