Germany looks set to join an increasing number of western countries in going down the authoritarian internet censorship route in an attempt to tackle perceived issues with the use of social media.
The German government has just approved a bill to force social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to not only delete content deemed to be criminal but also report it to the police.
The terrorism excuse deployed again
Last year, a terrorist attack on a Synagogue in the eastern city of Halle saw criticism levelled at the German authorities for failing to prevent the attack given the anti-Semitic social media posts that had been made by the terrorist.
As is so often the case, it is after such an atrocity that a government seeks to use public anger increase its own powers under the guise on increasing security and trying to prevent such an attack happening again.
That certainly seems to be the case in Germany. Powers of this type were first suggested in the wake of the Halle attack and less than five months later, the proposed laws look set to make it onto the statute book.
What the German government is planning
Under the proposed bill, social media sites will be obliged to delete any deemed to be hate speed from their platforms. Germany is far from the first country to introduce such a measure but their bill goes even further.
The new German law will also require social media sites to flag any such content to the Office of the Federal Criminal Police (BKA). They will be required by law to share the nature of the posting, as well as “the last IP address and port number most recently assigned to the user profile”.
There are a number of major concerns with the bill. Firstly, the definition of what crimes require such a referral is typically vague. It includes the “formation of criminal and terrorist groups”, as well as anything featuring racial incitement or the distribution of child pornography.
With the possible exception of child pornography, all of these definitions are open to interpretation and are likely to see content most people would deem perfectly legitimate being censored because the different social media companies don’t want to take the risk.
The VPN blind spot
But even more troubling is the demand to provide IP Address and port numbers. This looks to be a gross violation of people’s freedom of expression. It also completely overlooks the fact that many people in Germany will be using a VPN.
VPNs are a common online security and privacy tool that people use to keep their data secure and encrypted online. They are also commonly used to circumvent state censorship of online content too.
If someone is using a VPN, they will be undetectable under the new laws because their IP Address will not link back to their actual geographic location. But equally, if someone wants to post something and not be traceable, a VPN offers a simple and easily accessible solution.
As seems to be the case with most laws of this type, the German authorities seem to be blissfully unaware of the existence of VPNs, never mind have a strategy to deal with the gaping hole VPN technology blasts through their new law.
Social media sites encouraged to censor
There has been swift and brutal criticism of the proposed bill from across German society, particularly because it essentially empowers the social media sites themselves to interpret and implement the new law.
As Bernhard Rohleder, managing director of Bitkom, told the Financial Times, the law “breaks with principles of our law-based state”. His organisation is not the only one to make the case that it is up to German prosecutors to apply German law, not private companies such as Facebook and Twitter.
The end-result of legislation of this type is predictable. “The platforms concerned will be tempted to report too much rather than too little user data to the law enforcement authorities — out of fear of fines,” Rohleder ruefully explains.
In defending the law, German politicians have turned to the type of emotional rhetoric that we have seen all too often in the UK and the USA when similar laws were up for debate.
Germany’s Justice Minister, Christine Lambrecht, turned the rhetorical dial right up to eleven when she said, “We have to drain the breeding ground on which extremism thrives… We have to stop the spiral of hatred and violence.”
We have seen in other countries that this really is the only defence that politicians can make of such ill-advised laws that undermine people’s fundamental rights in the name of security. There is no empirical evidence to offer up in their defence, so emotional rhetoric is all they have left.
Social media censorship is coming in Germany
But have no doubt that Germany is serious about this. Their Network Enforcement Act, which is already law, empowers the German authorities to fine social media companies up to €50m if they fail to remove illegal content within 24 hours of being notified.
This new bill takes matters even further and will result in rampant social media censorship and an inevitable spike in VPN use in Germany as the German people seek out the free uncensored internet their government is denying them.