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Impact of new Germany 'hate speech' law felt by media, politicians

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Freedom of speech in Germany is under attack by a new law intended to stifle “hate speech” on social media, according to the country's popular Bild newspaper. The law went into effect Jan. 1.

What happened?

"Please spare us the thought police!" stated a headline in the Bild’s Wednesday edition. The accompanying article called the new law a sin against freedom of speech protected by Germany’s constitution. In George Orwell’s novel, "1984," the Thought Police is a secret agency that investigates, censors, and punishes any communications that go against the opinions of the ruling party.

So far, Twitter has deleted “anti-Muslim and anti-migrant posts” by the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, Reuters reported. It also blocked an account that poked fun at Islamophobia.

Bild Editor-in-Chief Julian Reichelt said the new law requires the removal of social media posts that are “manifestly unlawful.” Yet it fails to define what is unlawful and therefore can apply to anything, he said.

As of Jan. 1, social media sites must investigate and block or delete offensive content within 24 hours. Websites that fail to promptly remove anything deemed to be hate speech can face fines of up to 50 million euros ($60 million), Reuters reported.

"The law against online hate speech failed on its very first day. It should be abolished immediately," Reichelt wrote.

The law is turning AfD politicians into "opinion martyrs," he added.

Beatrix von Storch, deputy leader of the AfD, was unable to tweet for 12 hours after she criticized Cologne police for posting information in Arabic on Twitter.

According to reports, police filed a complaint on her because she tweeted: "What the hell is going on with this country? Why is an official police site ... tweeting in Arabic? Did you mean to placate the barbaric, Muslim, gang-raping hordes of men?"

How is the law defended?

Justice Minister Heiko Maas defended the law by saying free speech does not include inciting hatred or spreading criminal content online.

"Calls to murder, threats, insults and incitement of the masses or Auschwitz lies are not an expression of freedom of opinion but rather attacks on the freedom of opinion of others," Maas said.

Germany's laws on defamation, threats, and incitement to commit crimes are among the toughest in the world, Reuters noted. People are sent to prison for denying the Holocaust happened or for expressing hatred toward minorities, for example.

"Those who care about protecting freedom of opinion can't just look on as criminal incitement and threats inhibit the open exchange of views," Maas said, according to Reuters.

What websites are impacted?

Companies impacted by the Network Enforcement Act include Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram, Gizmodo reported. Professional networking sites and messaging services (LinkedIn, Xing, and WhatsApp), are excluded from the law.

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