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Right-wing protesters try to storm justice ministry over 'hate speech law'

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Right-wing protesters try to storm justice ministry over 'hate speech law'
Police carrying away an Identitarian protest on Friday in Berlin. Photo: DPA.
16:44 CEST+02:00
Members of the right-wing Identitarian movement attempted to storm the German justice ministry in Berlin on Friday over a proposed law to fight hate speech on social media.

About 50 people from the right-wing, anti-immigrant movement gathered before the justice ministry in the afternoon and then tried to force their way into the building, according to police.

But officers were able to prevent them from doing so, arresting one person for violating assembly laws. Police said that the situation was under control by 2pm.

Last August, Identitarians climbed the Brandenburg Gate and unfurled banners reading “secure borders - secure future”.

The group wrote on their Facebook page that the demonstration on Friday was against Justice Minister Heiko Maas and his proposed law to make social media sites more consistently and quickly remove hate speech, which was being discussed on Friday by the German parliament (Bundestag).

Maas has become a figure of hate for the far-right scene because of his tough stance against right-wing extremism.

Maas’ proposal, dubbed the “hate speech law”, would force sites like Facebook and Twitter to delete overtly criminal content within 24 hours of it being flagged. For more complex cases, the sites would have seven days to do so.

The websites would also have to designate a contact person in Germany with whom citizens and government agencies could be in contact.

If companies do not set up “suitable procedures” to delete comments, Maas has explained, they would face fines of up to €50 million.

A study by jugendschutz.net - which advocates for better online protections for children and teens - found that social networks generally have quite low quotas for removing flagged content. Facebook only deleted 30 percent of such comments, Twitter just 1 percent. YouTube had the best track record at 90 percent.

But fringe groups like the Identitarians are far from the only ones opposed to the bill. Critics include trade associations, internet activists, journalists, NGOs, lawyers, and even members of the ruling coalition government that Maas represents.

'Caution before speed'

The main concern expressed by opponents is that the law would threaten freedom of expression, and would create the privatization of law enforcement.

“I cannot understand how Facebook, for example, is qualified to check whether content is illegal,” said Bavarian economy minister Ilse Aigne of conservative coalition member the CSU.

Others point out that the short deadlines and high fines may lead companies to remove content too hastily without thorough evaluation.

“Caution must come before speed,” warned Alexander Rabe of the internet industry association eco. He added that it would be wrong to delete things that are dubious more quickly than it would take to legally examine them.

German digital advocacy group Bitkom found in two legal assessments that Maas’ bill could violate both the German constitution as well as EU law. Under German law, the assessments concluded that the short time periods to delete comments compromise freedom of expression.

SEE ALSO: 'Germany shouldn't force social media firms to be arbiters of truth'

One of the legal experts, Gerald Spindler of Göttingen University, said that on the EU policy side, the proposal would be problematic because the rules would extend to providers across the EU and beyond. This would contradict the principles of the Union’s e-commerce policies.

The EU Commission has until the end of June to determine whether the law in fact is compatible with the Union’s laws. If the Commission does not object during this time, the proposal would get the green light.

Bitkom also argues that Germany should not rush into implementing such a law that still raises so many questions. Maas is trying to push the law’s approval right before the Bundestag takes its summer break, and ahead of the national election in September.

“The fight against hate speech and criminality on the internet is too important to be led by an overly hasty and poorly crafted law, which has no chance before a court,” said Bernhard Rohleder of Bitkom.

But what then is the best way to deal with hateful content?

Markus Beckedahl from digital rights platform Netzpolitik said that mass deletions are not the right solution. Hate speech posters only then learn to articulate their posts in ways that are not noticeably illegal.

“That does not solve the problem,” Beckedahl said.

Instead, he said such individuals should be brought more quickly to court.

“That is the better form of deterrence.”

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