The Internet is not a lawless space, but reporting and denouncing happens far too little. A new law is supposed to help. But law enforcement alone will not solve everything. Constructive coexistence on the web requires much more: the commitment of each of us.
Anyone who insults another person on the street, for example a police officer, risks being reported to the police. According to the Police Criminal Statistics, more than 240,000 insults were reported in 2020. Offences in the comment section online often remain without legal consequence. Only six percent of the reported insults last year happened online.
You might think that this is because there are not many insults on the web or that it is a lawless space. Both is wrong. Nevertheless, hardly any charges are filed. Comments that are insulting, inflammatory, racist or incite violence can be just as much a criminal offense online as offline.
For prosecuting authorities to be able to act, such comments must be reported. The results of a recent Bitkom survey (German only) show that this is still happening far too little. While one in six social media users affirm that they have already been the victim of hate speech, only 1percent state that they have also filed criminal charges.
Most of our laws were made in a time where there was no Internet or social media. The challenge now is to adapt them to the digital world so that criminal prosecution for acts committed online can succeed even better. The Federal Government in Germany took a first step with the "Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz" (Internet Enforcement Law). On April 3, 2021 the law against right-wing extremism and hate crime also came into force.
What laws are in place to better prosecute crimes online?
Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (short NetzDG)
The NetzDG came into force in October 2017. It takes platform operators of for-profit social networks with more than two million users to task. If they are informed about illegal content on their platform, they must react within 24 hours and block this content or delete. If they fail to do so, they face a fine in the millions.
For many experts, the NetzDG did not go far enough, as it does not apply to e-mail and messenger services, professional networks, specialist portals, online games and sales platforms. The question of whether private-sector companies can and should be held responsible to such an extent is also the subject of intense debate. The skeptics' argument: this would shift government tasks such as the prosecution of criminal offenses to companies.
Law against right-wing extremism and hate crime
In order to be able to prosecute hate and incitement on the Internet even more resolutely in the future, the Act against Right-Wing Extremism and Hate Crime came into force on April 3, 2021. It is now explicitly punishable to threaten somebody with an act of violence against the sexual self-determination, physical integrity, the personal freedom or damage of the person or a relative. In addition, the sentence for threatening and insulting is increased from one to two years' imprisonment. The rising number of anti-Semitic crimes in recent years was also taken into account in the legislative package. Anti-Semitic motives now have an aggravating effect on punishment.
The new law places even greater responsibility on the operators of social platforms. If death threats, inciting statements or other criminal content are reported to them, they are now obliged not only to block or delete this content, but also to report it to the Federal Criminal Police Office. As of February 2022, the process for doing so must be between all parties.
It also better protects people who are active in local politics or in emergency medical services. Anyone who works in an honorary capacity and is thus exposed to threats or insults can have their data blocked for information in the civil register more easily than before.
EU draft law on digital services (Digital Services Act)
The European Union wants to enhance their procedure against hate online. To this end, the European Commission has presented draft legislation on digital services, which still has to be discussed in the ordinary legislative procedure at EU level. Once adopted, the new rules will apply directly throughout the EU.
In addition to the obligation to provide information about criminals online to the judiciary of the member states or Europol, the platforms will also be required to set up reporting functions for their users. Every report that is then received via this must be checked. The law is also intended to combat the manipulation of users. For example, advertising must be clearly recognizable as such. Very large platforms should keep an archive of the advertising distributed via their sites. The goal is to simplify the tracking of dark ads, which we dealt with in the article Online Phenomena: When program codes decide for us or to prohibit dark ads in principle.
The bill also provides for a stronger reporting obligation for providers with more than 45 million users per month. Once a year, they are to publish a report on the risks arising from the use of their service and also disclose the countermeasures they are taking.
Who reports to the authorities or the platform helps to turn the Internet into a better place.
The internet is short-lived and changes constantly. That's why laws related to this must also remain in constant change. In order for laws to take effect at all, however, we must become active as responsible users and report criminal posts, comments or messages. Reports can be made to the platform itself, to organizations such as HateAid or directly to the police. As Deutsche Telekom, we are partnering with the initiative "Verfolgen statt nur Löschen" and the public prosecutor's office of Göttingen. Both are committed to ensure that hate crime on the Internet is prosecuted more vigorously and can be reported more easily.
Will a new legislation save us from online hate?
Yes and No. The legislation is, of course, an essential element in a constitutional state to show what is tolerated and what is not Laws form a socially relevant framework and, moreover, are intended not only to provide orientation, but also to provide restraint and deterrence. This orientation framework should apply equally not only in the analog world, but also in the digital world. Only if the same rules apply to the Internet can it be a safe and peaceful place for everyone.
However, it is fatal to believe that online hate will go away on its own if our laws become stricter. We must not leave it to the law enforcement agencies alone to ensure compliance with the rules, but must use our civil courage to stand up for values-based coexistence. It is precisely in the gray areas, where the tone is already unacceptable and hurtful but the threshold for criminal liability has not yet been crossed, that we are all called upon to get involved. If we do not, the danger of social division through exclusion and the loss of diversity will increase.
Digital civil courage is given additional legitimacy by laws. Nevertheless, we must not tire of fighting for constructive coexistence on the web. We must not look away and think: someone else bears the responsibility - even if it is the state.