German police searched the homes of three dozen people on Tuesday, all of whom are accused of writing hateful messages on social media.
The raids illustrate significant differences between how Germany treats hate speech online when compared with the United States.
The 36 targeted people are accused of threatening others, racism, and other forms of harassment, and most of them are classified as “right wing,” according to The New York Times.
In the U.S., speech meant to threaten is illegal, but hate speech is not. In Germany, both can result in a visit from police. German law prohibits speech that “incites hatred” against a number of groups, including groups defined by race, national origin, and religion.
This gives Germany a broader scope to go after individuals for their social media actions, and it’s indicative of a larger trend in which the German government (as well as several other European Union governments) has shown its exasperation with social media’s ability to perpetuate hate and misinformation.
The German government is considering a law that would force social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to build a system that allows for the takedown of hateful posts within 24 hours. Posts that are debatably hateful would be given a week before they were determined permissible or not. Noncompliance could result in 50 million fines for social media sites.
If it passes, the law would be yet another European move to make social media sites pay significant sums of money for not complying with European standards of online behavior and practice.
In 2018, for example, European Union governments will be allowed to fine Facebook, Google, and other online giants up to 4 percent of their yearly revenue (read: billions of dollars) for violating privacy rights of people in the EU. Such violations include using personal data to target specific ads to EU residents, something that happens all the time in the U.S.
This latest legal battle between an EU government and an online titan shows the fight isn’t just about privacy, but also about how much responsibility social media sites have for what people say on them.