As Germany cracks down hard on online hate, is Canada next?
The Canadian government appears to have no plans to follow in Germany’s footsteps by forcing social media companies to delete illegal hate speech from their sites.
On Monday, Germany began enforcing a new law that requires companies like Twitter and Facebook to scrub “obviously” hateful, defamatory or fake-news posts within 24 hours of receiving a complaint.
The law, known as NetzDG, has proven extremely controversial, with one German political leader already kicked off Twitter this week for posting about “Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men.”
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the office of Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (who is currently travelling outside the country) appeared to confirm that Canada won’t be wading into similar waters anytime soon.
“Canada has one of the most comprehensive legal regimes against hate crime and hate propaganda anywhere in the world,” wrote David Taylor in an email to Global News.
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The Criminal Code already contains three unique offences linked to hate speech, Taylor noted.
“These offences protect any and all groups which are identifiable on the basis of race, colour, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, or gender identity or expression,” he said.
There is evidence that online hate speech is only increasing in Canada, however, clamping down has proven challenging. Under section 320.1 of the Criminal Code, a judge has the authority to order the removal of hate propaganda from a publicly accessible computer system in Canada, but court cases linked to that section remain rare.
“The process is a little more onerous than it sounds like the German process is,” said Richard Moon, a professor of law at the University of Windsor who specializes in freedom of expression. “As far as I know, (section 320.1) has not been used very often.”
A potentially more likely move by the Liberal government, Moon said, would be to reintroduce a section of Canada’s Human Rights Act dealing with hate speech that was repealed by the Harper government. Section 13 of the Act allowed people to take a complaint of hate speech to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
There has been “vague talk about whether that should be reintroduced,” Moon said, but nothing concrete.
How Germany’s law works
The German law has a very German-sounding name — Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz. It’s been shortened to “NetzDG” to make things easier.
The law came into effect last fall, but the German government gave companies a three-month grace period to allow them to prepare for its enforcement, which officially began on Monday.
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At its core, NetzDG is designed to force social media companies to crack down on hate speech, so-called “fake news” and defamatory statements posted to their platforms. It applies only to companies with more than two million registered users in Germany (that means you, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter) and expressly excludes professional networks like LinkedIn.
The law requires the companies to introduce an easily accessible complaint portal where users can report posts containing material that is “obviously illegal” under German law.
That includes things like Nazi propaganda and imagery, incitement to hatred or violence against a particular group, attempts to form terrorist organizations, or even misleading information in a fake news story that could result in a disturbance of the public peace.
Once a complaint is filed, the companies have 24 hours to assess it and remove “obviously illegal” posts. For less obvious cases, the timeframe is seven days.
While it’s German users filing the complaints, the draft text of the law doesn’t make it clear if NetzDG can be used to delete posts made from computers outside of that country.
Any company that repeatedly fails to meet the deadlines can be fined up to €50 million (over C$75 million). Individual employees working for the companies who don’t follow the law face fines of up to €5 million euros ($7.5 million).
So how’s it going?
The law had barely been enforced for a day before its effects were felt at the highest levels.
Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party found herself temporarily booted off Twitter on Monday for alleged incitement to hatred.
Von Storch’s offending tweet accused the Cologne police of appeasing “barbaric, Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men” after the department sent out New Year’s greetings in Arabic.
Cologne was the site of mass sexual assaults on Dec. 31, 2015, with many of the victims describing their attackers as North African or Middle Eastern in appearance.
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Von Storch’s account was eventually re-enabled, but her tweet was permanently deleted by the company, as required by the law. In a subsequent newspaper interview, she called it “the end of the constitutional state.”
Other critics of NetzDG include free-speech activists and organizations like Reporters Without Borders and the German Association of Journalists. Many believe that it could have a chilling effect.
“The short deadline for removal, coupled with the threat of heavy fines, will very likely drive social networks to remove more content than is legally justified,” wrote the executive director of Reporters Without Borders in Germany, Christian Mihr, in a statement last summer.
“Even journalistic publications will face a real danger of being affected by this kind of over-blocking without due process.”
The notion of due process is also a central one for critics, who argue that NetzDG skips over the courts entirely and allows private companies to decide how, and when, to apply the law.
France targets fake news
Meanwhile, in neighbouring France, president Emmanuel Macron took a tentative, initial step toward a similar web clampdown on Wednesday, announcing that his government will table a bill specifically targeting fake news during “electoral periods.”
New requirements will be introduced, Macron promised, that require increased transparency on all sponsored content on websites, so that people know who, exactly, is behind that content.
Caps would be placed on funding for sponsored content, he added, and sites and users that spread fake news stories may be blocked or find their accounts deleted via a court order.
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