It caused quite a stir in Germany recently when several tweets from a far-right politician were deleted and her account briefly blocked. Satirical magazine Titanic's reply to the anti-Muslim tweet was likewise deleted and their account banned.
The Free Democratic Party, the Greens and the Left Party were quick to assign blame to the Network Enforcement Act – NetzDG in the German abbreviation. The regulations, in force since the beginning of the year, require social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to delete "obviously illegal" content within 24 hours or face fines of up to €50 million ($62.5 million) for repeated violations. Critics fear that internet platforms would prefer to delete or block questionable comments and accounts in anticipatory obedience. The conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), currently in negotiations to form a new federal government, has come to agree with the NetzDG opponents.
"We have now had a good three weeks to observe the NetzDG in practice, and I conclude that freedom of expression is increasingly falling by the wayside," said Dorothee Bär, chairwoman of the CSU's internet policy working group. The law not only overshoots the mark, she said, "it's also against the constitution."
The harsh observations of Ms. Bär, a member of the CSU team of negotiators in the coalition talks with the Social Democrats, are quite remarkable. The CDU/CSU and the SPD had campaigned in favor of the deletion regulations and were part of the Bundestag majority that voted them into law. Now the CSU politician is calling for a "fundamental restructuring" of the law, poking the SPD in doing so.
Each partner can introduce issues into coalition negotiations, but it begins to get tedious if, for example, Ms. Bär makes suggestions in public but does not promote her own faction's position, said Ulrich Kelber of the SPD’s parliamentary group. "What do the CDU/CSU want? I don't know," he added.
Ms. Bär's opinions also came as a surprise to SPD parliamentarian Johannes Fechner. "So far, there has been no talk in the CDU/CSU of overturning the law,” he said. There is "no need for corrections as the CSU envisions."
The right to free speech is firmly anchored in Germany’s constitution, though like many countries it makes exceptions for speech that incites violence or defames an individual. Others argue the law is unconstitutional because it takes the matter of deciding what speech is legal out of the government’s hands. Companies like Facebook have said they won’t challenge the law themselves; they expect German citizens or politicians to challenge it instead.
What Ms. Bär envisions is requiring platforms to report to officials any content considered punishable by their community guidelines. In this way, she hopes to ensure that criminal offences are better prosecuted. "Mail from the prosecutor's office or from the judge leaves a stronger impression on the perpetrators than just a deleted tweet," she said.
Mr. Fechner considers the proposal to be impractical. The networks' community standards have not proved to be effective, so repealing the law is out of the question for him. But the SPD politician is open to amendments. "I see a need for improvement in cases where content was wrongfully deleted," he said. "This is where we need an enforceable right of restitution for users." The CDU has similar ideas, but if the CSU gets in the way, negotiations could be difficult.
In any case, the NetzDG pressure on the grand coalition negotiators is likely to increase. It also provides the opposition with a bargaining chip. FDP deputy parliamentary leader Stephan Thomae has already called on Ms. Bär to keep her word and campaign for the abolition of the law in the negotiations with the SPD. "Otherwise, your demand would be nothing more than a PR exercise," he said.
Dietmar Neuerer cover politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]