June of 2017 ended with the German parliament approving the bill targeted at eliminating hate speech and fake news on social media, including on Facebook, YouTube, and Google. The law will take effect in October of 2017, and could carry fines up to EUR 50 million.

We previously discussed the bill on this blog post.  Now that the bill has been passed into law, social media companies are required to remove illegal hate speech within 24 hours after receiving notification or a complaint, and to block other offensive content within seven days.  The law also requires social media companies to report the number of complaints they have received, and how they have dealt with them, every six months.

Germany already has stringent laws aimed at those who circulate defamatory material, public incitement to commit crimes, and threats of violence. The country has laws for Holocaust denialists, or inciting violence against minorities, the contravention of which can include prison sentences.  These laws, including the most recent one passed, admittedly limit the right of freedom of expression, which enjoys a significantly greater protection in other countries, the most obvious one being the United States of America.  In response to this limitation, Germany’s justice minister Heiko Mass responded that this new law “is not a limitation, but a prerequisite for freedom of expression.”

Germany’s laws on defamation, unfair discrimination, and the incitement of violence (particularly against minority groups) are very similar to laws covering the same topics in South Africa. These countries share similar pasts, with the Holocaust and Apartheid.  They have also implemented similar laws since these periods of gross injustice to ensure that previous atrocities based on race do not occur in future.

South African courts have taken a robust approach recently towards the issue of hate speech and defamation on social media. To date, however, the focus seems to be on individuals and their conduct on social media, rather than on the social media companies themselves and their obligation to regulate the content that is posted on their pages.

Earlier this year, Facebook undertook to appoint thousands more moderators to vet the content that was being posted and shared on its platform. Whilst the social media company uses artificial intelligence to monitor the content that is shared, it still relies heavily on users reporting offensive content before it is able to take action.  The new law passed by Germany now places increased responsibility on the company itself to regulate its content.

In March 2017, South African Minister of State Security David Mahlobo publicly stated that the regulation of social media is also being considered locally. Now that Germany has approved a law doing just that, we may soon see a social media bill before the South African Parliament too.