According to Eva-Maria Kirschsieper, Facebook’s chief lobbyist in Germany as head of its public policy team, “Hate is not part of our business model. We have a special responsibility and we take that very seriously.”
Her comments are clearly directed at the country’s justice minister, Heiko Maas, who has been pushing legislation through the German Parliament that would see Internet companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube fined millions of euros for not being quick enough to remove hate speech.
Facebook does not like Mr. Maas’ proposed legislation; last week they released a statement in response to the new rules, in which they said the law – known as the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or network enforcement law, in English – “is not suitable to combat hate speech and false news.”
The 11-page Facebook statement was hardly likely to encourage a better relationship between the US-based social media giant and German politicians.
“Dilettante,” was how Petra Sitte, the Left Party’s spokeswoman described it. “Odd behavior,” said Michael Grosse-Broemer, head of the ruling Christian Democratic Union’s parliamentary faction. And Konstantin von Notz, the Green party’s specialist for digital matters, said he suspected that Facebook would rather that everyone forget about the whole thing. Mr. von Notz said that during his visits to Facebook’s headquarters in the US, the feeling was that because the platform was so active in 200 countries around the world, they could not just go around bending to every single country’s will.
“Facebook believes that because of their many millions of users that they are very powerful. But German – and European – politicians are not so easily impressed by that. ”
However it is also true that Germany is Facebook’s largest market in Europe. It is also quite possible that German politicians will push for similarly stringent legislation at a European level eventually and if the Conservative party is successful in the UK elections this week, their manifesto contains outlines for similar rules.
So it would make sense for Facebook to play nice with German politicians. Ms. Kirschsieper has represented the social media company in Berlin for six years now. She has not managed to foster much mutual understanding in that time though. In fact, the opposite has happened. Facebook has gained a reputation for not caring that much about the concerns of German politicians or the German public. It’s often even hard to get an interview with Facebook’s representatives.
It’s not that Berlin politicians don’t like using the platform. Facebook itself has issued guidelines on how politicians can best use it and Mr. Maas himself uses the platform to extend the reach of his messages.
But that is exactly why Facebook thinks it has greater influence in Germany than it does, says Jörg Müller-Lietzkow, an expert in media systems at the University of Paderborn in North Rhine-Westphalia. “Facebook believes that, because of their many millions of users that they are very powerful. But German – and European – politicians are not so easily impressed by that,” he argues.
Other US tech giants have also learned this, to their own cost. The European Commission punished Microsoft to the tune of half a billion euros for not allowing customers to freely choose an Internet browser. Google is fighting with EU competition authorities and Facebook itself ran afoul of the same officials for not telling the whole truth after their takeover of the messaging service WhatsApp.
Facebook is not alone in its criticism of Mr. Maas’ planned legislation. Basically the law says that social media networks must remove posts or user-generated content that have been defined as hate speech within a certain time frame. If the social media platforms do not do this, it can be fined millions.
Critics complain that this “privatizes” implementation of the law. And it is true that the current version of the legislation has many weak points. This has been pointed out by many opponents, including Reporters Without Borders, German journalist associations, legal experts and business associations as well as the political opposition.
There is also the danger of what’s being called “over blocking” – that is, where too much content is censored by the social media businesses themselves, just so they remain on the safe side of the new law.
But much of the criticism is exaggerated – or even malicious. There is no danger of a “ministry of truth” or “censorship infrastructure” being set up.
Alternative solutions to the proposed legislation are also being offered up. Würtzburg lawyer and IT expert Chan-jo Jun suggests that those who post offensive content should be involved – they would be consulted and would have the right to object. If there was any doubt, a neutral party – possibly a court of law – could get involved. This kind of due process would ensure that the social media networks are not given excessive power.
Berlin criminal lawyer Ulf Buermeyer, who specializes in media law, wants social media companies to set up a contact point for police and state prosecutors as well as a time limit for a response. Up until now, the companies have reacted only slowly or not at all to demands for information, Mr. Buermeyer, says.
The controversy about the law proposed by Mr. Maas is part of the struggle to enact new legislation in response to a new reality. Up until now social media platforms have been reluctant to define themselves as media organizations and therefore have not been willing to hold themselves to the same standards as other established media.
But despite general confusion about how to appropriately confront that new reality, Facebook could certainly make more of a contribution. After all, Facebook has ten lobbyists in Brussels, including Thomas Myrup Kristensen, formerly with Microsoft. In the position paper it released in Germany, Facebook even affirms its basic support for the federal government’s goal of removing illegal content.
If it really meant what it said, Facebook could do some of the things that people like Mr. Buermeyer and Mr. Jan have suggested. It could also publish details of the standards it sets for post deletion, or at least submit them regularly to an independent council. The company could allow politicians and journalists access to those employees who carry out the sometimes harrowing task of examination and deletion.
Other digital media experts have also complained that Facebook doesn’t reveal how its algorithms work, or how users’ posts and information is shared, something that is thought to have had a major impact on politics in 2016 – in particular, the Brexit vote and the US presidential election.
Facebook could be more transparent. It could be on friendlier terms with German politicians. It could be working harder to delete offensive, illegal and misleading posts. Instead, in the position paper directed at the German government, Facebook complains about being forced to hire highly qualified employees to examine and delete illegal contents. And the most Ms. Kirschsieper will admit to is that: “We haven’t done a good job up to now.”
She then announced that her firm would hire 3,000 more staff to police negative content – to keep an eye on Facebook’s millions of users around the world. No doubt German politicians will be pleased.
This story is based on articles originally published in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche and newspaper Die Zeit.