A historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage wasn’t the only bit of major legislation out of Germany this week. The country’s parliament on Friday passed a law to try to prevent extreme opinions, hate speech, fake news and crazy conspiracy theories from polluting local culture and community.
The “Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz” – or network enforcement law – promises to fine social media giants from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter if they fail to remove offensive content fast enough. They could face fines of up to €50 million if they don’t react to justified complaints within 48 hours.
Germany’s brand new law has been criticized by many groups who complain about online censorship and the fact that defining what is illegal online is being determined by private companies. But a further problem with the law, little explored as yet, is that it could drive the internet’s miscreants back into the shadows, where they can continue to share illegal content and spread hate speech, unmolested by the authorities or internet giants.
“It is not unlikely that radical internet users would move to even more extreme platforms,” said Marie-Teresa Weber, head of media policy and consumer law at Bitkom, Germany’s industry association for the digital sector.
This is already happening. Holders of extremist right-wing views are moving to what may best be described as alternative social media platforms.
“Vid.me doesn't censor content for bad language or controversial subject matter. We like weird.”
Infamous YouTubers like the US’ Alex Jones of InfoWars fame, and the UK’s Tommy Robinson, a former spokesperson for the notorious, anti-immigrant English Defense League, have already set up their own channels on Vid.me, a new video-sharing site. It offers videos of all kinds and says it has over 1 million video creators. “Vid.me doesn’t censor content for bad language or controversial subject matter. We like weird,” said a message from the site’s managers. This includes a number of questionable German channels with clear neo-Nazi themes.
Gab, a site described as a cross between Twitter and discussion and news website Reddit, saw a wave of new sign-ups when Twitter started banning people who post controversial tweets. Many of those ejected opened accounts at Gab, which uses a symbol that looks a little like Pepe the frog, a favorite with the alt-right movement in the US, for a logo instead of Twitter’s blue bird.
To fund their activities, some extremist organizations bypass crowd funding sites with strict community guidelines and turn instead to places like Counter Fund, which describes itself as “an ideological crowdfunding platform built by and for the wider alt-right counter-culture.” Another is WeSearchr, which welcomes campaigns of all kinds, no matter what their ideology. The digital currency Bitcoin is favored because it allows users to be more anonymous.
Germany’s new network law won’t affect these kinds of sites, according to Mirko Hohmann, a researcher and project manager at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “The law is very specific in that it only applies to social media networks with 2 million users or more,” he said. Most of the alternative sites have fewer than that number, Mr. Hohmann said.
It would also be a lot more difficult to police the smaller sites. “Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are motivated to work with the German government and the German market, so fining them can work,” he said. But smaller sites don’t care. “There, the law would be at a loss,” Mr. Hohmann said.
Bitkom’s Ms. Weber thinks the new law is misdirected and should focus instead on individuals. “Just deleting posts doesn’t fight the hate, it only makes it invisible,” she said. “We can only change culture when people understand that what they do online has legal consequences.”
Advocates of more online freedom say the internet can self-regulate. These include Eugen Rochko, a 24-year-old German computer programmer and developer of Mastodon, another site that works a little like Twitter, now with over 750,000 users. Proving that not all new social media sites cater to extremists, his site was developed mainly to wrest control of social media away from commercially-minded companies.
“The Mastodon network is an example of how individual communities can police their own platforms,” Mr. Rochko said. “If right-wing groups decided to join Mastodon in force, they would be immediately blocked and isolated in their own little bubble. In my experience, we’ve dealt well with the few small issues we’ve had so far.”
And, Mr. Hohmann pointed out, the fact that extremists are crawling back under their online rocks is not necessarily a bad thing. “I think we can safely assume there will always be extremist opinions,” he said. People who hold extremist opinions are always going to use alternative websites, but the new law aims to slow the proliferation of those extremist ideas, he argued.
For all of its well-documented faults, part of the point of the new German law is to prevent regular users of the internet from being affected by extremist views. Usually, that broader majority would not seek out local neo-Nazis or spout hate speech, but have been brought closer to such views in cyberspace by a number of digital trends: click bait, filter bubbles and profit-minded social media companies that prize share-ability above all else – alongside the evaporation of trust in mainstream media.
If Germany’s new law, matched by other tactics by social media giants, does drive extremists to alternative platforms, perhaps only those who truly prescribe to such views will follow them into their shadowy online ghettos.
Cathrin Schaer is a freelance editor with Handelsblatt Global.