Germany’s uncomfortable relationship with free speech continues. The country has always been sensitive about certain subjects (rhymes with Bitler and, um, Yahtzee), resulting in laws that suppress speech referring to these subjects, apparently in hopes of preventing a Fourth Reich from taking hold.
But the censorship of speech extends far beyond the lingering aftereffects of Germany’s supremely troubled past. The government has passed laws outlawing speech with the vaguest of contours, like “hate speech” and “fake news.” And it has swung a pretty powerful hammer to ensure cooperation, stripping away intermediary immunity to hold platforms directly accountable for user-generated content. You know, like a nation run by authoritarians, except ones that enact penalties for references to a certain former authoritarian.
Germany may wish to escape its abusive past. But its speech-related laws encourage abuse by powerful people. Allow this timeline to run without interruption long enough, and you’re staring down the barrel of history.
Maybe it won’t be the second coming of national socialism. But it might just be the conversion of Germany into something resembling the USSR farm team East Germany was until the fall of the Berlin Wall. As this New York Times report details, people are being arrested for being careless online — something that suggests far too many local politicians desire a Stasi of their own.
When the police pounded the door before dawn at a home in northwest Germany, a bleary-eyed young man in his boxer shorts answered. The officers asked for his father, who was at work.
They told him that his 51-year-old father was accused of violating laws against online hate speech, insults and misinformation. He had shared an image on Facebook with an inflammatory statement about immigration falsely attributed to a German politician. “Just because someone rapes, robs or is a serious criminal is not a reason for deportation,” the fake remark said.
The police then scoured the home for about 30 minutes, seizing a laptop and tablet as evidence, prosecutors said.
If the police already had copies of the posting, it doesn’t make much sense for them to search a home and seize devices. But that’s what they do. And, according to the New York Times article, this happens nearly one hundred times a day all over the nation, day after day after day.
Normally, when someone suggests efforts like these produce a chilling effect, governments issue statements affirming support for free speech and obliquely suggest the original commenter is misinformed or misinterpreting these actions. Not so with Germany. The chilling effect is the entire point — something the government freely admits.
German authorities have brought charges for insults, threats and harassment. The police have raided homes, confiscated electronics and brought people in for questioning. Judges have enforced fines worth thousands of dollars each and, in some cases, sent offenders to jail. The threat of prosecution, they believe, will not eradicate hate online, but push some of the worst behavior back into the shadows.
This means the earlier efforts — those forcing social media platforms to immediately and proactively remove anything the German government might find offensive — haven’t worked as well as politicians hoped. It was an impossible demand, one made by people who don’t believe anything is impossible if it’s backed by a government mandate and (most importantly) entirely the responsibility of other people.
Since the government can’t make social media companies perform the impossible, prosecutors have decided to go after internet users, who are far easier to threaten, intimidate, and jail into silence. Chilling is what we do, say prosecutors, citing the supposed success similar tactics have had in the fight against online piracy(!):
Daniel Holznagel, a former Justice Ministry official who helped draft the internet enforcement laws passed in 2017, compared the crackdown to going after copyright violators. He said people stopped illegally downloading music and movies as much after authorities began issuing fines and legal warnings.
“You can’t prosecute everyone, but it will have a big effect if you show that prosecution is possible,” said Mr. Holznagel, who is now a judge.
Since it’s almost impossible to tell what will trigger police action and prosecution, German citizens are likely engaging in self-censorship regularly. Sarcasm, irony, parody, shitposting… all of this is under scrutiny, since it’s apparent the government isn’t capable of performing anything but a straightforward reading of user-generate content. It would be almost comical if it weren’t for the police raids, prosecutions, device seizures, and jail time.
No national figures exist on the total number of people charged with online speech-related crimes. But in a review of German state records, The New York Times found more than 8,500 cases. Overall, more than 1,000 people have been charged or punished since 2018, a figure many experts said is probably much higher.
This effort siphons resources from law enforcement agencies asked to police more serious criminal acts — the kind that result in actual victims who can show actual harm, rather than the theoretical harm posed by posts that fall outside of the boundaries set by the German government’s escalating desire to regulate speech.
But that doesn’t mean local police aren’t welcoming the new duties. Some seem to particularly relish literally policing the internet.
Authorities in Lower Saxony raid homes up to multiple times per month, sometimes with a local television crew in tow.
Internet use is under constant surveillance. This always-on monitoring provides law enforcement with targets. Arrestees who refuse to submit to device searches aren’t slowing down investigators. Electronics are sent to crime labs and subjected to forensic searches by Cellebrite devices. Millions of dollars fund these efforts… and for what?
Swen Weiland, a software developer turned internet hate speech investigator, is in charge of unmasking people behind anonymous accounts. He hunts for clues about where a person lives and works, and connections to friends and family. After an unknown Twitter user compared Covid restrictions to the Holocaust, he used an online registry of licensed architects to help identify the culprit as a middle-aged woman.
“I try to find out what they do in their normal life,” Mr. Weiland said. “If I find where they live or their relatives then I can get the real person. The internet does not forget.”
That’s what the government is going after. Germany is in the business of punishing stupidity. But only certain forms of stupidity. Far more threatening posts are ignored by law enforcement. An activist interviewed by the NYT said she was doxxed and threatened by online commenters. When she took this info to law enforcement, officers responded by giving her a brochure about online hate and telling nothing that was said broke any laws. Doxxing is ok. Threats are ok. Making an extremely terrible analogy? A criminal offense.
So is this:
Last year, Andy Grote, a city senator responsible for public safety and the police in Hamburg, broke the local social distancing rules — which he was in charge of enforcing — by hosting a small election party in a downtown bar.
After Mr. Grote later made remarks admonishing others for hosting parties during the pandemic, a Twitter user wrote: “Du bist so 1 Pimmel” (“You are such a penis”).
Three months later, six police officers raided the house of the man who had posted the insult, looking for his electronic devices.
While it’s somewhat understandable that speech restrictions have been put in place in hopes of preventing history from repeating, the government’s desire to turn ignorance into criminal activity is hugely problematic. Laws like this are never taken off the books. They either linger forever or are subjected to endless expansions, allowing the government to start serving its own interests rather than those it imagines the general public values. There’s no impending slippery slope here. Germany is already headed down it.
Filed Under: chilling effects, content moderation, fake news, free speech, germany, hate speech, insults, piracy, surveillance
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Insults, verbal aggression, slander, libel are all direct attacks against a person or their reputation — bullying, plain and simple.
Now who defends bullying?
Remarking on stupidity or writing satire will always be considered to be insults, verbal aggression, slander, libel and direct attacks against the thin-skinned and their reputation.
In Singapore, even saying that the government made mistakes is grounds for a defamation lawsuit.
Yes, it’s rarely used that way, but it HAS been used that way.
It’s never a good thing when the government thinks criticisms are akin to lèse-majesté…
Some people really are penises though.
And I am willing to bet that in the next 10 years, Germany will still be a functioning liberal democracy while the U.S. descends farther into a fascist shithole.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but recent events show that there is a fascist far-right movement in Germany as well.
All of Europe has a fascist problem, and it’s getting worse when fucking RUSSIA, of all countries, are aiming guns at Ukraine and their tepid politicians didn’t aggressive denounce Russian aggression, REGARDLESS OF THE FACTORS THAT LED UP TO IT.
There’s fascist movements everywhere right now, yeah. Germany is more equipped to stem the tide of them than most. Meanwhile, election officials here in the U.S. have to wear bulletproof vests, like in Colorado.
Germany has had a problem with fascists and fascist groups for ages, and their laws narrowly tailored against Nazism have never worked. But they are doing a good job of being authoritarian by increasing those kinds of laws, and by abusing them for petty stupid crap.
Recent events may make it more obvious i guess, but this problem never stopped anywhere. It just became a widespread personal cult post-WWII. The only problem some people had with that war was being invaded, they had no issue with any of the ideology.
preventing history from repeating …by repeating history? Does not compute. They’re merely building the infrastructure which will be used by the next neo-Nazi who gains control trying to build that Fourth Reich.
Hey, it works in democracies like Singapore…
Boy it’s a good thing that there’s no possible way a system normalizing random harassment and police intimidation could ever be used to punish and silence anyone critical of the powerful, or chill the speech of innocent people by making them too terrified of the cops knocking on their door for being anything less than extremely ‘polite’ any time they speak online.
And the Phillipines.
Germany is trying to escape its abusive past by embracing an abusive future? How ironic. This reminds me of this quote. “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Germany is going to create the same conditions where another future Putin can thrive. It started with censorship, you know. It won’t stop with a little censorship. It’s like frog slowly being boiled. When it is increasingly politically acceptable to censor more and more speech, before we know, our democracy is gone. That was how it was with Russia. This current trend with censorship happening in Western democracies is disconcerting especially the latest censorship in name of Copyright. Where do we draw the line that should be not crossed when it comes to censorship?
The New York Times report is behind the usual paywall so I can’t check it out.
Recently Jan Böhmermann from ZDF Magazin Royal put the laws to test. ZDF is a German broadcasting company. Magazin Royal is a comedy show. They took some random hate speech and gave the same complaints to each police headquarter in all states. Of course, they didn’t tell the police that the hate speech was a test. After 10 months they asked the police departments about results. Some police departments even sent the person away who made the complaints which is against the law. Otherwise the result of the complaints was a bit fat nothing.
A couple of years ago a high ranking police officer was killed in Germany after such hate speech. So the police should take hate speech more seriously.
So the police should take hate speech more seriously.
You’re saying the 8500+ cases are not enough, and German police need to do more to intimidate the citizens into silence?
Germany is a fascist country. They are scum and it’s deeply ingrained into the german psyche. They are essentially Nazis. Germans don’t value freedom so they will continue the same path until they eventually start WWIII. The overthrow of the Nazi party didn’t change german culture, they’re still the same as before.
according to the New York Times article, this happens nearly one hundred times a day all over the nation, day after day after day.
Uhm no, you may want to read that article again.
Spoiler, it says that around 100 homes were searched as “part of a coordinated nationwide crackdown that continues to this day”, not that 100 homes are searched each and every day.
Who knew Germany was so hideous? I guess ALL governments are a nightmare
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