Nadja Kirchhof


ZAC NRW: Bring hate and incitement to justice

Hate, incitement to hatred, defamation, incitement to violence - what is covered by freedom of expression? What is illegal? And why is it important to take criminal action against agitators? We spoke with Dr Christoph Hebbecker, public prosecutor and press spokesperson of the Central and Contact Point Cybercrime North Rhine-Westphalia (ZAC). 

Symbol ZAC NRW

"Prosecute instead of just deleting": criminally relevant comments can be successfully prosecuted and convicted. © iStock/Thinkhubstudio; Bearbeitung: Henning Müller

Hate comments in social media, incitement of the people, cyber-attacks on companies and child pornography: The Central and Contact Point Cybercrime North Rhine-Westphalia (ZAC NRW) fights against the growing crime on the internet. The unit was established seven years ago. Since 2017, it has been working together with the police, the Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia, and several media companies on the project "Tracking instead of just deleting". One goal of the project is to bring more hate comments to justice.

Christoph Hebbecker: "A big challenge in the fight against hate on the net is that many people do not report hate comments and hate messages. It is not sufficiently known that hate speech is punished by law enforcement. Therefore, one of our most important tasks is to educate and create easily accessible reporting channels."

Tip: Anyone who witnesses hate online should contact the REspect! reporting center or report the incident via the MeldeHelden app or the state media authorities.

Hate comments can have criminal consequences

For this purpose, the project partners have set up a cloud-based reporting channel through which the media partners (NRW-based television stations, radio stations and newspapers) can post reports if hate postings relevant under criminal law appear on their platforms. The public prosecutor's office takes up these facts and processes them further with the state criminal investigation office or the local police stations. As in this case: A defendant had called for Syrian migrants to be shot at the border. She was sentenced to eleven months' imprisonment on probation and a fine of 1,500 euros.

Contrary to the assumption of many users, hate on the internet does incur high penalties. An insult on the internet can be punished with up to two years in prison. In the case of incitement of the people, even up to five years are possible. "Our project 'Prosecute instead of just delete' shows that criminally relevant comments can be successfully prosecuted and sentenced. In recent years, we have been able to identify many defendants and obtain sentences ranging from fines to imprisonment without parole," says Christoph Hebbecker. 

Technical progress: a curse and a blessing at the same time 

Constant change and technical progress are both a curse and a blessing for ZAC NRW. Especially now that artificial intelligence has become accessible to everyone, new challenges arise. Fraud schemes using artificially generated and deceptively real-looking images, audio or video recordings are on the rise. And identity abuse for criminal purposes is also being committed more and more often.

But the rapid technical development also has advantages, as public prosecutor Hebbecker knows: "AI can be of decisive relevance in the area of criminal prosecution, especially in mass data phenomena. We use it in a supportive way, for example in forensic data analysis or digital forensics. A sensible use is also conceivable in digital hate crime. Ultimately, however, it is always the human and not the machine that must decide whether a posting is still covered by freedom of expression or already constitutes a criminal offence."

Technology is no substitute for experience and joint commitment

Technology can support the authorities in law enforcement. But to further advance the prevention of hate on the net, public awareness plays an important role, the press spokesman of the Central Office for Cybercrime NRW is convinced: "Raising awareness of the topic is very crucial. We not only have to make it clear that the rules for dealing with each other apply in the digital world just as they do in the analogue world, but also that we have the claim and the possibilities to enforce compliance with these rules in the same way."   

Initiatives such as those of Telekom and the 'Prosecute instead of just delete' project are important, said Hebbecker, because: "An effective fight against hate on the net can only succeed if we work together. Law enforcement is an important building block in this. But without cooperation with actors from science, civil society and business, there will be no sustainable success."


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