Most bad content has already done its damage by the time it's taken down
Google, Facebook and Twitter may face fines of up to €50m from the German government if they fail to remove obvious hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours.
The new law, announced on Wednesday, is designed to get the tech giants to follow through on a promise they made two years ago, but have singularly failed to live up to. Germany thinks that by hitting the companies’ where it hurts, it will ensure they toe the line.
Germany — which already has some of the world’s toughest laws against hate speech — is leading the way in trying to bring these companies to account for the proliferation of illegal content on their platforms, from trolling to terrorist propaganda.
The problem is that Germany’s move will not only damage free speech, but will do little to limit the impact and spread of the content it is trying to eradicate.
The first problem is that by putting the burden of blame on companies like Facebook and Google, you are charging them with defining what hate speech really is.
Because there is no legal definition for terms like this, tech companies have relatively free rein in how they define them. But the threat of huge penalties means companies are likely to err on the side of caution.
Bernhard Rohleder, manager of Bitkom, a German group representing 2,400 digital companies, suggests: “Given the short deadlines and the severe penalties, providers will be forced to delete doubtful statements as a precaution. That would have a serious impact on free speech on the internet.”
Even if the companies can remove “obviously criminal content” within the strict 24-hour time limit, the problems caused by the content will not be solved.
According to Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project, take-down doesn’t happen fast enough to prevent the damage, since social media posts usually reach their widest audience within a few hours.
“There is pretty good evidence that a lot of the harm is caused by much of the bad content in the first hours after it is posted, so even if it is taken down, that happens [too late].”
Another problem is that, while removing it from Facebook and Twitter will obviously be of benefit, terrorist groups like ISIS have dozens of other ways of communicating their messages to the world.
One example is JustPaste.it, a tiny one-man startup from Poland, that allows users to easily share text and images. It currently has around three million monthly users. Back in 2014, Mariusz Zurawek, who ran the company from his bedroom, found that ISIS had begun using the platform to share its propaganda.
“The fact that my site started to be used for bad purposes was a big surprise and I think it is something that could happen to any startup,” Zurawek said at RightsCon last week. 'We didn’t know what to do, and what others expect us to do.”
As Adam Hadley, project director for the ICT4Peace Foundation, said at the same panel: “The internet is a tech unlike any other with a scale that is hard to imagine.”
To that end, the charity launched the second phase of its Tech Against Terrorism project which aims to help startups like JustPaste.it who find themselves faced with the unenviable task of deciding what constitutes hate speech and what doesn’t — all while trying to make their business grow.
Companies like Facebook and Microsoft have signed up to help out, along with the United Nations’ Counter Terrorism Committee and Europol.
How successful this project will be will depend on how much resources the likes of the UN and Facebook are willing to put into it, as well as how many startups will hear about it.
For the most part startups in the tech sector are focused on raising money and growing user numbers; dealing with terrorist propaganda is well down their list of priorities.
Simply admitting terrorists are using your platform is enough to stop investor money flowing your way. Many might be tempted to simply ignore the problem and hope it goes away.
But as we have seen over recent years, no matter what companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have done, those who want to spread hate speech online will find a way.