Can Germany crack the problem of regulating Facebook?

Around the world, attention is turning to cracking down on the power of Facebook. But can gErman lead the way, without turning it into a tool of oppression?

There are greater calls worldwide to regulate Facebook and other such social platforms. Their use `— and — by political organisations both nationally and internationally has become the talk of the worldwide community, after a series of shock election results in 2016. And while 2017 hasn't seen electoral upsets at quite the same scale, there is a growing unease in many people's minds about the role Facebook is playing in their lives.

And it could just be that Germany is in the forefront of putting the big social media platforms into a modern regulatory framework for the very first time. That, at least, is the thesis of an in-depth read from America's the Atlantic magazine.

I'm deeply aware of the danger of a British person writing about an American article about Germany - for a German audience. But the thrust of The Atlantic's long read is compelling. The German public's resistance to Facebook — something I've encountered first hand, not at NEXT, but in conversations with other German friends and acquaintances - has created conditions for a fascinating attempt to curb the power of Facebook:

To say that Facebook has an image problem in Germany, where it has 28 million users, is a staggering understatement. Germans tend to view it as a phenomenon that drives people apart instead of bringing them “closer together,” as Facebook’s mission statement suggests, by facilitating the spread of hate speech, misinformation, and fake news.

That deep unpopularity has allowed legislative action that might not be so feasible in, say, America.

On October 1, a new law went into force in Germany, compelling Facebook and other social-media companies to conform to federal law governing the freedom of speech. The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or the “Network Enforcement Law,” colloquially referred to as the “Facebook Law,” allows the government to fine social-media platforms with more than 2 million registered users in Germany—a club that includes giants such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Reddit—up to 50 million euros for leaving “manifestly unlawful” posts up for more than 24 hours.

That's a pretty serious demand on Facebook, which has always worked hard to avoid taking any direct responsibility for what has been posted on its platform. In effect, it has wanted to reap the financial rewards of being an open platform for people to share information, without taking on the financial burden of monitoring those posts for illegal content in the posting jurisdiction.

Cultural conditions for change

More than that, though, Facebook was born in a country that places freedom of speech as the heart of its political principles. Germany tends to see other things as being more important:

Article Five of the German constitution, which governs the right to freedom of expression, explicitly protects freedom of opinion, a narrower category than freedom of speech writ large. Instead, Article One of Germany’s postwar constitution instructs, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.”

And I think even the most strong and vocal proponent of Facebook would be hard pressed to deny that it often does much to erode human dignity.

The wider impact of Germany's Facebook law

So, now the law is in phased effect, with the platform having until early next year to comply fully. And the world is watching. Where Germany leads, many other countries may follow:

The execution, revision, and impact of Germany’s Facebook Law will set a meaningful precedent for how nations around the world approach the issue. On its face, it is one of the harshest laws to be adopted by a democracy in order to rein in social-media companies, placing the burden on the companies themselves to ensure faster, better moderation of illegal and fake content. Depending on how giants like Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter respond, the law could result in a safer, more truthful internet, or it could simply lead to a more censored one.

And it's that latter point that worries many. The heady days of the Arab Spring seem like an awfully long time ago, but then the ability of the social platforms to circumvent censorship and local laws was praised, rather than criticised. And the world is still full of repressive regimes that would like to quell the web's power to amplify dissenting voices.

It may be that social-media users are at the outset of “the great deletion,” as Beckedahl warned in a June op-ed in Süddeutsche Zeitung. His concern is that despotic heads of state, such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will adopt their own versions of the Facebook Law to censor the opposition.

The problem is that disruption often looks very different depending on which end of the process you're on. For those of us in Western democracies, the power of the social platforms to subvert the political oppression present elsewhere seemed great, until we realised how powerfully those same techniques could be when applied to challenge the norms of our own politics. A gun feels great in your hand, but nobody enjoys staring down its barrel.

The challenge to Germany's political leaders is this: can you restrain the power of Facebook, without crippling the benefits it has brought the world? getting it right could be a major boon for us all. Getting it wrong could turn Facebook from a tool for disruption into a tool for oppression.

Andy Omvik