Germany’s constitutional court has told Facebook it must disclose the personal data of users who insulted a prominent green politician, in a ruling that could have far-reaching consequences for social media platforms operating in the country.
Politician Renate Künast identified 22 insulting comments on Facebook and asked the company to provide her with the data of the perpetrators so that she could sue them.
Users had called her “brain amputee”, “sick woman” and “pedo-junk” among other insults, according to the court’s verdict. Two regional courts in Berlin deemed just 12 of the 22 comments criminal and said politicians should be able to tolerate “even excessive criticism”.
But in the judgment published on Wednesday, the constitutional court ruled that the 22 comments were criminal. The judges said the Berlin courts failed to “strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the right to privacy, as required by the constitution”. The court’s verdict is binding and cannot be appealed.
Germany has long been at the forefront of efforts to control the internet. The so-called Network Enforcement Act – known locally as NetzDG – came into effect in 2018 and requires platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to remove potentially illegal material within 24 hours of notification or face fines that may go up to 50 million euros.
A new, even tougher version of the NetzDG went into effect on Wednesday. It obliges the platforms to transmit the data of suspected criminals to the German police. The law creates a new department within Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), designed to investigate suspects on social media faster and more efficiently. In particular, it targets the alarming rise of far-right publications on platforms such as Facebook.
Facebook critics have long complained about what they see as the platform’s reluctance to release data from users who engage in hate speech. Prosecutors investigating incitement cases said the social media company often did not respond to requests for information.
In the UK, criticism was sparked last summer by racist abuse online targeting black English footballers after the team lost in the Euro 2020 final. This led to a petition with more than half a million signers and a new bill calling for identity verification on social media.
Facebook said it would “take action against hate speech whenever we become aware of it and continuously invest in reporting teams, technology and tools so we can find it faster.”
A statement from Meta, Facebook’s corporate name since its October rebrand, said it would share requested data on people who insulted Künast as soon as the Berlin Regional Court orders it, based on the verdict. of the Constitutional Court. He said he invested $5 billion in online security last year.
The European Commission’s latest progress report from last year found that Facebook had removed around 70% of hateful posts, in line with requirements set out in a 2016 code of conduct agreed with Facebook and other social media platforms. .
Künast is one of Facebook’s most tireless critics and a longtime campaigner against hate speech and fake news on the internet. In 2017, she sued a right-wing organization that posted made-up quotes attributed to her and accused Facebook of not removing the quotes quickly enough.
Katrin Göring-Eckardt, Green Vice-President of the Bundestag, welcomed the court’s verdict, saying it was an “important day in these times of hatred against democracy”.
The German court’s decision comes as the UK prepares to pass an online safety bill. The landmark legislation proposes to hold tech companies liable for any illegal content on their sites, such as hate speech or messages inciting violence or terrorism, as well as legal but harmful content. UK lawmakers have been pushed back by tech companies and free speech advocates who believe the bill will lead to too much censorship.