Mass Shooting Adds Urgency to Merkel’s Push to Curb Hate Speech

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long sought to eliminate hate speech and fake news from websites such as Facebook and Twitter. A shooting near Frankfurt this week that left 11 people dead — by a far-right activist who published a racist screed online before the incident — has added momentum to those efforts.

While freedom of speech is important, “we need to make clear where the limits are,” said Merkel’s Justice Minister, Christine Lambrecht.

A few hours before the shooting on Wednesday, Merkel’s Cabinet approved a law that would force the likes of Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to report hate speech on their platforms to police. The measure “is supposed to dry out the breeding ground” of rancor, Lambrecht told reporters in Berlin.

Lawmakers in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, still need to approve the legislation for it to become law. The next step isn’t scheduled until the end of April, but some members say they would favor accelerating that process in light of this week’s violence.

“Hate online is fertile soil for such terrible crimes,” said Alexander Throm, a lawmaker for Merkel’s Christian Democrats. “We must counter that with the full force of the law.”

The killings in the town of Hanau have prompted soul-searching in a nation gripped by concerns about the rise of the far right, which is disrupting the final stages of Merkel’s four-term chancellorship. Tech companies have long been criticized for not doing enough to curb the spread of disinformation and terrorist propaganda on their platforms.

Wednesday’s shooting — labeled by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer as a racist terror attack — is the third prominent assault by the extreme right in less than a year, after a synagogue attack in eastern Germany in October and the murder of a regional lawmaker from Merkel’s party last June.

Nine people with a migration background were killed at two bars in Hanau on Wednesday night, and the suspected perpetrator and his mother were found dead at a nearby home. Before the attack, the shooter had published a “deeply racist” manifesto that called for genocide, according to Peter Frank, Germany’s federal prosecutor.

The new legislation updates a law called NetzDG that implemented Europe’s toughest controls on hate speech and fake news online. The measure requires tech companies to delete such posts and calls for fines as high as 50 million euros ($54 million) if they fail to do so.

Under the revised bill, companies would also have to alert authorities to offensive posts containing, say, far-right propaganda or threats of rape and violence, and pass on the internet addresses of the people who make them. The bill would also raise penalties for certain crimes committed online.

Partly in response to NetzDG, Facebook — with about 30 million users in Germany — has hired hundreds of people to remove misleading articles, illegal postings such as Holocaust denials, and fake accounts from the site. Facebook and Twitter declined to comment. Google’s YouTube didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

The opposition Green Party has warned that the revised law would allow police to indefinitely keep vast files on citizens simply suspected of wrongdoing, with little due process. And Article 19, a London group focused on freedom of speech, says measures such as NetzDG should be abolished rather than tightened because they make it easier for governments to quash dissent while offloading responsibility for enforcement onto companies.

“NetzDG created a model of intermediary liability with an incentive for companies to remove content, without clear guidance on freedom of expression or sufficient legal determination on what was to be blocked,” said Barbora Bukovska, a director at Article 19. Similar laws have “already been used by countries with much weaker institutional and legal safeguards for the protection of human rights — such as Russia — to justify their own restrictive practices.”

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