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New report details the results of Germany’s effort to prosecute citizens for online speech

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FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

A new report from the New York Times details how Germany has “gone further than any other Western democracy” to prosecute individuals for what they say online.

In 2017, Germany passed a landmark law — the Network Enforcement Act — that forced online platforms to quickly take down hate speech or face fines.

Companies ramped up their content moderation to comply with the new law, but many German policymakers said the law did not go far enough because it targeted companies rather than the individuals who created the offending posts, reports the Times.

After Walter Lübcke, a German politician, was assassinated in 2019, German authorities undertook more severe efforts to prosecute people who broke speech laws online. The New York Times reports that “no national figures exist on the total number of people charged with online speech-related crimes,” but the paper found more than 8,500 cases.

“German authorities have brought charges for insults, threats and harassment. The police have raided homes, confiscated electronics and brought people in for questioning. Judges have enforced fines worth thousands of dollars each and, in some cases, sent offenders to jail,” reports the Times.

“We are making it clear that anyone who posts hate messages must expect the police to be at the front door afterward,” said Holger Münch, the head of the Federal Criminal Police Office.

One investigator told the Times about fining a painter roughly $10,000 for sharing insults about Turkish immigrants. Another discussed tracking down an anonymous Twitter user for comparing COVID restrictions to the Holocaust.

Some of the online platforms have pushed back against proposed expansions to the Network Enforcement Act. Meta, Google, and Twitter recently stopped a new provision of the law that would have required the companies to notify the government when they detected prohibited content.

"Network providers such as YouTube are now required to automatically transfer user data en masse and in bulk to law enforcement agencies without any legal order, without knowledge of the user, only based on the suspicion of a criminal offence," a Google spokesperson said about the expanded law. “"This undermines fundamental rights.”

Still, Germany continues its enforcement efforts. “You can’t prosecute everyone, but it will have a big effect if you show that prosecution is possible,” said Daniel Holznagel, a judge and former Justice Ministry official who helped draft the 2017 law.

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