A German law requiring social media platforms to respond quickly to reports of hate speech – and in some cases remove illegal speech within 24 hours of it coming to their attention – appears to provide an early test of whether if Twitter, owned by Elon Musk, face significant legal consequences over the reckless way it operates the business.
Since the self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” took over Twitter at the end of October and set about mass layoffs and sweeping policy changes (including, this weekend -end, the lifting of a permanent suspension of former US President Trump), concern is growing among lawmakers and social media users that Twitter could degenerate into a hellscape of weak or no content moderation under its new billionaire owner liquidator of staff and loving shitpost.
The fact is that some content moderation laws apply to Twitter internationally – and Germany has one: the Social Media Enforcement Law, commonly referred to as NetzDG (a shortened version of its name full German), authorizes fines of up to €50 million for failing to comply with illegal hate speech removal reports.
But given Musk’s mass firings on Twitter — and a number of notable resignations since taking office, including the departure of former trust and safety chief Yoel Roth — it’s unclear. not how much core content and moderation resource expertise remains in-house to enable it to comply with the various existing regulatory requirements that are imposed on the company in international markets like Germany and India .
By some estimates, there are only hundreds of staff left on Twitter out of an earlier staff of around 7,500 after Musk’s “hardcore” ultimatum to staff last week.
Entire international offices would have been decimated, quickly attracting the attention of lawmakers – such as in Spain, where dozens of employees were reportedly fired, leading the Minister of Labor to Tweeter a warning to the company earlier this month about the need to comply with local labor laws (which it followed up by saying the labor inspectorate was acting on the matter after union complaints).
Staff in Germany were also among international employees fired from Twitter – with a local union reporting earlier this month that a large number of software engineers had received Musk’s notorious email ‘agrees to be hardcore or quit” at the end of last week. Also last week, Reuters reported on remarks from a German government spokesman – who said he was monitoring developments on Twitter with “increasing concern”.
A German IT law firm, JunIT Rechtsanwälte, has a hearing on Thursday for injunctive proceedings against Twitter. He accuses the company of failing to act on reports of hate speech and removing illegal content as required by NetzDG law.
The company’s founder and managing partner, Chan-jo Jun, tweeted a “save the date” marker earlier this month – saying that Twitter will have to answer for its failure to act on reports of hate speech during the public hearing where he said he would apply for a platform-wide injunction.
Under German law, many things qualify as illegal hate speech — sharing Nazi symbols or denying the Holocaust, for example — because it has some of the strictest anti-hate speech laws in the Western world.
So it’s clear that if Musk is looking to apply a purely American-centric flavor of free speech everywhere on Twitter – and/or simply doesn’t have enough staff working on content moderation and enough resources to respond to reports of illegal content – this puts it on a direct collision course with German law for beginners.
The NetzDG law came into force in Germany in 2017 – and was further strengthened in mid-2020, when the German parliament agreed to impose a reporting obligation on platforms that obliges them to report certain types of “criminal content”. in the Federal Criminal Court. Police station.
While a new reform of the law last year focused on strengthening users’ rights by increasing transparency on platforms – requiring tech companies to hand over details of takedowns to researchers, among other things. changes.
Although NetzDG has been in effect for several years in Germany, it has remained a subject of controversy – with critics claiming that its existence has a chilling effect on free speech online by encouraging social media companies to reduce their risks and to block social media users. contents.
At the same time, for years the joke tied to content moderation on Twitter for users of the platform in markets outside of Germany wanting a quick escape from the online hate that has flourished on Twitter in the in previous years, before Musk – when his earlier leadership allowed a toxic flowering of American white supremacist and neo-Nazi discourse via a lackluster and inconsistent application of claimed community standards – was to change their location to Germany in the settings and get purged all that toxic speech since Twitter at least complied with German hate speech rules.
So it would be rather ironic now that German law is the main (only?) legal tool available to blame Musk for dismantling Twitter’s content moderation standards at this time. (A pan-European Digital Services Act, also focused on regulating illegal content takedowns, will not come into force until February next year at the earliest).
It’s a big “if” though. Because a pressing question for international regulators is whether Musk will pay close attention to compliance with speech laws, or any laws, outside the United States (Similarly, concern is growing in the United States). United over Musk-Twitter’s compliance with the FTC’s consent decree – leading to a “punched across the arc” statement earlier this month by the US regulator.)
In October, messaging platform Telegram was hit with two NetzDG fines in Germany, totaling around 5 million euros – for violating requirements to provide channels for users to report illegal hate speech and non-designation of a local representative to receive documents. with legally binding effect — a level of penalty that seems unlikely to cause Musk more sleepless nights than he already has by buying Twitter.
Although, on paper at least, German law allows for greater penalties for violations, which could add up for an ad platform that has seen big advertisers flee takeover after Musk, compounding the major financial concerns.
Yet another question that international regulators may soon face is how (or even if) they are able to levy fines and enforce legal consequences against an “autonomous” Twitter – if, for example, Musk is removing all employees from their markets and leaving no local entities to serve.
What is their path to enforcing compliance?
A nightmare scenario for international regulators, therefore, is surely Musk’s willful non-compliance – giving them the choice of letting him off the hook by publicly snubbing their rules or being forced to essentially punish local users. from Twitter by issuing a ban on the service and trying to block access within their own markets (as much as is possible even in affluent regions like Europe where users can use VPNs to circumvent geo-blocks etc. .).
Politically, a service ban would likely be wildly unpopular — and easily hunted down by Musk as outrageous censorship — putting lawmakers in a bind.
Therefore, quickly tweeted threats from international regulators to ban Twitter (like the one embedded below) could appear rather hollow, in the weeks and months to come (and beyond…), if none of these entities can proceed and Actually enforce against irreverent rule breakers.
(Another case that seems instructive here is Clearview AI – which has faced a slew of fines from European data protection regulators in recent months, but it’s less clear whether any of those fines will actually be recoverable as the US company continues to deny breaking the rules or even that these European laws apply to its business.)
The German court hearing looming for Twitter this week is just one of the first examples of the ongoing legal fallout from Musk’s takeover of Twitter. But it looks like a watch — as much to see how (or even if) Musk-Twitter responds to legal process and legal process as to any parking ticket fines that might ensue if there’s a traffic ticket. failed NetzDG hate speech removal.
One thing is clear: regulators around the world should strap in for a bumpy ride as Musk drives the Twitter clown car out of the gold mine.