Proposed German Legislation Threatens Free Expression Around the World

Date: 
Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 23:45

April 20, 2017 – AMSTERDAM/BRUSSELS/LONDON/WASHINGTON DC – The Global Network Initiative is deeply concerned by the “Draft Law to Improve Law Enforcement in Social Networks” (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz) approved by the German cabinet on April 5.

GNI is mindful of the complex challenges that governments and companies face when dealing with controversial content online. We recognize the legitimate interest that the German Government has in protecting the public. However, we are concerned that the rush to legislate, and to pressure companies under threat of fines to determine what is or is not illegal content, poses inadvertent but grave consequences for the right to freedom of expression in Germany, across the European Union, and worldwide.  

We urge the German Parliament to embrace its leadership role on human rights and the digital economy by rejecting the proposed legislation. 

“The practical effect of this bill would be to outsource decisions on the balance between the fundamental right of freedom of expression and other legally protected rights to private companies,” said GNI Board Chair Mark Stephens, CBE. 

“Companies facing the threat of multi-million euro fines will be compelled to broadly censor the internet, restricting the use of their services for any content that could be considered controversial,” he said.

This legislation has been described as a measure to combat hate speech and disinformation online, but its potential impact would be broader censorship of the internet. The impact of this bill would be to pressure private companies to take down any content that might run afoul of some 24 current provisions of the German Criminal Code – including offenses as varied as "defamation of the state and its symbols," "anti-constitutional defamation of constitutional organs," defamation of religions, religious and ideological associations,” and "depictions of violence." 

Although aimed at social networks, a wide array of online platforms and services, from email providers to web hosting and remote storage providers, could be affected, given the broad definition of social networks in the bill.

GNI recognizes that governments may restrict freedom of expression in circumstances that are compatible with constitutional law, and provided that their laws and policies accord with the conditions in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The proposed legislation does not meet these required tests of necessity and proportionality, and it poses a threat to open and democratic discourse.

“The internet has enabled huge advances in free expression and economic growth in large part because private intermediaries, including social media platforms and internet service providers, are not required to monitor and control what people can say or share or do online,” said GNI Executive Director, Judith Lichtenberg. 

“We encourage the German Government to embrace these norms and use other means of managing illegal content,” she said.

GNI recently released a policy brief, Extremist Content in the ICT Sector, with recommendations directed at both governments and companies on how to address extremist content online without harming freedom of expression and privacy. These recommendations have the support of our multi-stakeholder membership, and may also provide guidance for governments as they consider how best to protect freedom of expression when dealing with other types of controversial content.

For comment or further information on this release, please contact Kath Cummins, GNI Director of Communications and Outreach: kcummins@globalnetworkinitiative.org, or call +1 202 590 0837. 

About the GNI

Founded in 2008, The Global Network Initiative is an international multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector. GNI has built a framework of principles and implementation guidelines based on international human rights standards on which GNI member companies are independently assessed. Our membership collectively advocates with governments to protect and advance user freedom of expressions and privacy rights. 

For more information on GNI’s members, the GNI Principles, and the GNI Independent Company Assessment process, visit our website.