The idea of free speech in Germany is tempered by the notion of speech which protects the “right to personal honor.” It is in this backdrop that Germany’s ne hate speech law, so-called the “Facebook law,” takes effect this January, 2018. The law will fine any online carrier over $50 million that does not take down content deemed offensive within hours of a complaint being issued. The German concept of free speech is essentially on par (and may have inspired) the rising claims of hate speech in America, which is always followed by a call for government to protect people from this “hate speech.”
Germany, where many agree with British historian Timothy Garton Ash’s description of the web as a giant sewer, has now emerged as the trail-blazer in countering hate speech and fake news.
Under a new law that takes effect on 1st January, it will impose fines of up to €50 million (or $US58 million) for any major online service that fails to take down illegal content within hours or days of a complaint.
“With this law, we will end the verbal law of the jungle on the web and protect the freedom of opinion for everybody,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said as he introduced the draft of the so-called “Facebook law” in the German Parliament in June.
It’s hard to find reliable statistics about the types of hate speech circulating on the internet, but one project that tries — Hatebase, an initiative of the Sentinel Project in Canada — listed religion as the fourth most-frequent offending category after ethnicity, nationality and class, and ahead of sexual orientation, gender and disability.
Germany’s special role here stems from its post-war constitution. Just as the First Amendment shapes the US’ light-handed approach to controlling the web, the opening sentence of Germany’s Basic Law steers it towards more interventionist policies.
“Human dignity is inviolable,” reads its first article, which expresses a stand taken in reaction to the widespread violations of that principle during the Nazi years.
Several drafters were Christians, especially Catholics inspired by natural law theology, to guide what became West Germany in 1949. Free speech is guaranteed within the limits of the law and “the right to personal honor.”
The constitution’s preamble opened in a similar vein, declaring “the German people” were “conscious of their responsibility before God and man.”
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