German social media users test their leaders’ patience by exercising awkward, unruly free speech at their own peril
German politicians, ever anxious to squash strident criticism of their unilateral and, uh, somewhat controversial decision to expand the population by nearly a million migrants and refugees in the space of a year, are rounding on social media companies to strike another blow on already-constrained freedom of speech in Europe.
From Deutsche Welle:
Volker Kauder, a member of German Chancellor Merkel’s CDU, has said Facebook should pay for failing to remove online hate comments. There has been a surge in xenophobic posts as refugees have arrived over the last year.
Speaking to German magazine “Der Spiegel,” Kauder said: “The time for roundtables is over. I’ve run out of patience.” He said if companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter failed to remove offensive comments within a week of them being posted, they should be penalized with a 50,000 euro ($54,490) fine.
Social media websites needed to rethink their strategy, he said. “Otherwise, I have another suggestion. Cigarette packs always carry a warning that smoking can be dangerous. Why don’t we ask these [social network] providers to carry a warning on their websites, saying: ‘Anyone who communicates here must expect insulting remarks,'” Kauder said.
Kauder also insisted that the justice ministry should demand that the companies submit the IP addresses of people who posted hate messages on social networks.
Because heaven forfend that politicians should have to explain their decisions and win support for their actions (or better yet, follow the will of the people in the first place once in awhile). Far better to simply make it increasingly difficult for people to register their boisterous dissent.
Note the language. Kauder has “run out of patience”, suggesting that free speech in Germany is something granted to citizens at the sufferance of their thin-skinned leaders rather than an inalienable right. And of course that is exactly how it is in Germany, and most of Europe (including Britain). If some jumped-up politician decides that the civil discourse has become too un-civil – or, let’s be realistic too critical of them – then it is perfectly legitimate for them to turn the screws on private companies to shut it down.
Note too the ludicrous “public health” defence creeping into politicians’ language. One interpretation of Kauder’s threat to slap a mandatory trigger warning on the home pages of social networks is that he thinks so little of the German people’s intelligence that he genuinely believes they might currently be unaware that websites where political issues are discussed may contain opinions with which they disagree. That is one interpretation. But the other one (and the correct one in my view) is that it is simply a way of trying to hurt private enterprise for not bending the knee and doing government’s bidding.
Stephen Fuchs of the German-American culture blog German Pulse shares the same suspicions:
Do I think Germany is out of line to expect a level of cooperation to remove highly offensive posts once reported? No, not entirely. Where I begin to disagree though comes when any government starts policing excessively to the point where our outlets for expression become restricted by a set of rules that make any level of opinion a bannable offense.
How long until Germany pushes Facebook to delete any negative comments or opinions about a certain political party or candidate?
Negative remarks about refugees are deemed hate speech in Germany, but what about the negative remarks about Merkel’s refugee policies? Should we expect Facebook or Twitter to delete those immediately as well?
Maybe the government would be better off addressing the real issues that lead to the divisiveness, instead of playing the “you hurt my feelings” game online.
This is why free speech needs to be an absolute and indivisible right. It is a fragile freedom, with the slightest infringement causing a crack which easily grows and fractures our entire right to self expression. And while some (like Fuchs) may find it distasteful, the battle for freedom of speech must be fought at the unpalatable margins. Only by defending the rights of the racist to spew their bile about Syrian refugees can we be confident of preserving the upstanding citizen’s right to criticise German immigration policy without fear or expectation of censorship.
And as German Pulse rightly points out, no one step, no new draconian crackdown on freedom of expression is ever enough – just as one new health warning on cigarettes sugary food is never enough for the public health police. Individuals and companies cede more of their rights and autonomy, and it only ever emboldens the state to demand yet more.
Demanding that social media companies submit the IP addresses of users who post “hateful messages”to the justice ministry suggests that the German government (or at least significant factions within the ruling Christian Democratic Union) aims to become much more proactive in their persecution of thought and speechcrime. Why dream of building a massive database of social media users who type unacceptable keywords or are reported for causing “offence” by their thin-skinned peers unless you plan on unleashing some kind of retribution on them in response?
This is yet another dark day for free speech in Europe, but perhaps there is an upside – Theresa May will be able to find so much common cause with Angela Merkel over their mutual contempt for basic civil liberties that their shared authoritarianism could yet grease the wheels of the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
Top Image: Wikimedia Commons
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