Justice Minister Heiko Maas spoke with the founder of the initiative Faces of Democracy, Sven Lilienström, about Facebook, democracy, and how learning about the death camp Auschwitz influenced his career path.
Mr Minister, we ask all our interview partners this question: What significance does democracy have for you personally?
Democracy is the sister of freedom. Just as individuals freely determine things for themselves, through democracy everyone determines things together for our coexistence. That of course sounds easier in theory than it is in practice, because people are all so different and also have such different opinions.
Therefore debate is a part of democracy, the open exchange and the conflicts. This culture of debate is an essential prerequisite for actually finding a solution that brings various interests in society into a fair balance.
Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin: Autocratic leadership styles are celebrating a worrisome comeback worldwide, while democracies in the Western sense are losing ground. How do you explain this new desire for autocrats?
Life in this time of globalization is becoming confusing. Many people feel overwhelmed by swift changes. The actual or at least perceived closeness of problems and crises, which previously felt far away, worry many people. Therefore some yearn for simple answers. Populists capitalize on this by playing the tough guy role and promising people everything under the sun.
Almost all over Europe, there is a noticeable increase in right-wing populist movements. In your latest book “Stand up instead of ducking away: A strategy against the right-wing”, you reveal the methods of the new right-wing. What moved you, personally, to get involved in fighting right-wing extremism?
I describe in my book, in a nutshell, how I became a politician because of Auschwitz. This has become clear to me, little by little. The disgust over the unfathomable barbarity committed by the Germans then, is still today my impetus to rally against anti-Semitism, racism and attacks on human dignity.
There is no end to the story. Also today, there are dangers to democracy that we should all resolutely oppose.
The Bundestag (German parliament) recently passed new security laws. How much of our freedom must we give up for our security, and is our democracy strong enough to balance out a temporary imbalance between freedom and safety due to a dangerous situation?
Freedom and security are not contradictory: they depend on one another. Without a life in safety, freedom cannot develop. And without freedom, security becomes stunted by despotism and violence.
The many, bloody attacks recently – think of the attack in Berlin on the Christmas market – show that we are dealing with a very real danger. It is our responsibility to do everything within our power to prevent such assaults. But we don't just need new security laws. What is also important, at the least, is smart prevention to be able to stop young people early on from falling into extremism.
Hence I have always advocated for strongly increasing preventative means.
You demand high fines from social networks like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter when they do not delete obviously illegal content within 24 hours. What do you mean by “obviously illegal content” and how realistic is this time frame?
Social networks must abide by our laws, just like anyone else. Incitement to kill, defamation, or incitement to hatred must not only be consistently pursued by the justice system. Such indictable content must also already be deleted by Facebook and others under current laws, as long as they have knowledge of it.
This duty is, however, only being fulfilled by the platform operators to an insufficient extent. So we want to at last ensure that this obligation to delete is also being met.
Obviously illegal content is that which leaves no reasonable doubt about its punishability – something that already has an established case law against it. The social networks do not have to carry out in-depth reviews, but rather they can assess the legality of the statements in a short amount of time.
The line between censorship and freedom of expression is thin. Social network hosts could in the future use the threat of penalties as a way to delete users or critical comments in a large “preventative” manner. Do you think this concern is justified?
No. Social network operators have an economic interest in everything that appears on their sites. With each individual post, tweet or contribution, they earn money. Their own economic interest would tell them not to now also wholesale delete posts that are not illegal. Social networks will also not risk losing their users, who would surely turn away from them if they were constantly and unjustly deleting posts.
Criminal offences are not expressions of this freedom of opinion, but rather they are often very much the opposite: attacks on the freedom of expression of others. With incitements to kill or to hatred, people become intimidated and silenced. I find that whoever is truly on the side of protecting freedom of speech can not stand idly by as the open exchange of views becomes obstructed by illegal threats and intimidation.
This should also be within the interests of social networks.
Mr Maas, you are a hobby triathlete. What is the next end goal that you have your eyes set on – professionally, athletically or privately?
I am running for the next German parliament, and also to fight for democracy as an elected representative. Athletically I try – despite or right now because of my many appointments – to always get to places by bike or by foot. That frees your head for new ideas.