We’ve been pointing out that in the rush to claim that Facebook is a media company that must take responsibility for the content that is posted and shared on the site, there’s really an implicit call for blocking content that is somehow deemed “bad.” People keep acting like Facebook, rather than its users, has the responsibility to edit what is on the site. That’s dangerous — and for yet another example of how, we’ve now got a German official saying that Facebook has to be classified as a media property and be held criminally liable if it doesn’t magically delete “hate speech.”
This is really, really dangerous. Yes, we know that Germany has much stricter hate speech laws, but if you have to have them, at least hold the proper party responsible: those doing the speaking (and, yes, as we’ve pointed out repeatedly, hate speech laws are almost always abused by governments to silence and punish people they don’t like). Facebook, to some extent, has brought this on itself. In the past, it’s made promises, to Germany in particular about how it will help curb “hate speech” on the site. And, eventually, the government is going to get upset and say “you’re not doing enough.” Earlier this year, Facebook (along with Google, Microsoft, and Twitter) tried to appease European bureaucrats by signing an agreement to respond to complaints of hate speech within 24 hours. But now officials want more. Because once you give governments the power to censor speech, they’re always going to want more.
None of this is to say that Facebook needs to leave any particular speech up on its site. It’s a private company and gets to make those decisions. But when governments get involved, things get scary quickly — especially as the EU does still have safe harbors in the Ecommerce Directive that are supposed to limit liability for platforms. The statement made here, by German Justice Minister Heiko Maas, is a deliberate attempt to get around that Directive by declaring Facebook no different than a newspaper, which is responsible for what it prints. That’s ridiculous on any number of levels, starting with the fact that newspapers literally pick everything that they print, whereas a platform like Facebook doesn’t. It’s all on the users.
The really ridiculous thing here is that statements like this make things worse. It makes it clear to these platform companies that no matter how much they try to appease government officials on things like this, they’re always going to push for more and more censorship power.