It is an unfortunate but generally true statement that when trouble in Europe starts, it begins with Germany and her attempts at pursuing some goal. In true to form, Reason magazine has noted a disturbing trend that Germany’s “hate speech” law is being used as a model by governments around the world to shut down not just criminal speech, but simply ‘undesirable’ speech.
“Germany’s Network Enforcement Law, or NetzDG … requires social media companies to block or remove content that violates one of twenty restrictions on hate and defamatory speech in the German Criminal Code,” Diana Lee wrote for Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic. “In effect, the NetzDG conscripts social media companies into governmental service as content regulators,” with millions of euros in fines hanging over their heads if they guess wrong.
That model of delegated censorship has proven to be as infectious as a viral outbreak, taking hold in over a dozen other countries.
“This raises the question of whether Europe’s most influential democracy has contributed to the further erosion of global Internet freedom by developing and legitimizing a prototype of online censorship by proxy that can readily be adapted to serve the ends of authoritarian states,” Justitia, a Danish judicial thinktank, warned in a 2019 report.
It’s no surprise when countries like Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela emulate intrusive legislation from elsewhere—they don’t need much encouragement. But we’ve already seen that French legislators followed in Germany’s lead, and lawmakers in the U.K. are poised to do the same.
“In the wrong hands the internet can be used to spread terrorist and other illegal or harmful content, undermine civil discourse, and abuse or bully other people,” fretted a 2019 British government paper on “online harms.” The paper specifically cited NetzDG as a potential legislative model.
Last week, British lawmakers debated the very broad powers that the government seeks.
Their proposals “introduce a new concept into law—’legal but harmful’ for online speech,” cautions Ruth Smeeth of Index on Censorship. “It’s conflating what is already illegal, such as incitement and threat, with speech which we may disagree with, but in a free society is, and should be, legal.”
Austria is also considering a NetzDG-inspired law that would require the removal of “content whose ‘illegality is already evident to a legal layperson'” explains Martin J. Riedl, a native Austrian and Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism and Media. The law would further encourage compliance by “forbidding their debtors (e.g., businesses who advertise on platforms) to pay what they owe to platforms” that don’t conform to the law.
That’s expected to encourage even more “overblocking” by platforms worried that they’ll face a financial death penalty if they guess wrong as to content’s legal status.
Still, Austrians may not be able to out-flank their role models. Germany this summer moved to make NetzDG even more restrictive by adding mandatory “hate speech” reporting requirements.
Brazilian lawmakers, too, are considering legislation that started as NetzDG-inspired before morphing into a campaign against so-called “fake news” (because, apparently, any excuse for controlling speech is a good excuse when you work in government).
“It is vague on the matter of what’s considered fake news, which it describes as false or deceptive content shared with the potential to cause individual or collective harm,” wrote Brazilian journalist Raphael Tsavkko Garcia for the MIT Technology Review. “This ambiguity leaves it to the state to decide what kind of content is considered false or potentially harmful, and could allow those in power to manipulate the definition for political gain.” (source)
There can be a justifiable reason to limit certain kinds of dialogue in a society. However, this often varied by society based on their needs.
In the case of many societies, it is often used as a means to preserve an unhealthy status quo instead of to resolve real problems. The trend towards censorship is a major issue with the Internet because of the amount of data which she possesses. If taken far enough, we may be witnessing the beginning of trends toward a censorship of the Internet, or at least an attempted censorship, with far-reaching consequences.
It is something to be watched for the future, as while ‘book burnings’ to try and destroy the memory of the past have happened before, we may be moving towards the greatest one yet- that in electronic form, of which the consequences would be disastrous for all.