German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has relaxed plans to hit social media companies such as Facebook (FB) with fines up to $53 million for not quickly removing hatful and abusive speech from its platforms, Reuters reports.
In the comments on his new proposal, Maas acknowledged that freedom of expression "has huge significance in our democracy", adding at the same time that "freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins" and stressing that the new bill would be only the beginning.
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 the national election in September.
The EU now has 28 Member States, including Germany, and in May a year ago its executive body, the European Commission, unveiled a code of conduct for handling hate speech on social platforms, securing agreement on this initiative from Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft.
"We do not accept the fact that companies in Germany do not adhere to the law". "It's a solo effort. but the European Commission will certainly watch closely what Germany is doing". "That would have a serious impact on free speech on the internet", Bernhard Rohleder, manager of Bitkom, a German group representing 2,400 digital companies, said in a statement.
Renate Kuenast, the Green Party's legal expert, criticized the legislation by saying that it would effectively limit the freedom of expression.
One of the companies most affected by the bill is Facebook, which has sought to sidestep such laws by taking voluntary measures to curb the spread of fake news.
And the number of deletes made by the social media companies hugely varied.
Mr Maas said Twitter only took down one per cent and Facebook 39 per cent of the content reported by users deemed to flout Germany's anti-hate speech laws.
"We have clear rules against hate speech and work hard to keep it off our platform", a Facebook spokesperson told CNET last month.
"This will set binding standards for how companies running social networks must handle complaints and require them to delete criminal content", Maas said.
Germany has specific hate speech laws which criminalize certain types of speech, such as incitement to racial violence.