BERLIN — Germany officially unveiled a landmark social-media bill Wednesday that could quickly turn this nation into a test case in the effort to combat the spread of fake news and hate speech in the West.
The highly anticipated draft bill is also highly contentious, with critics denouncing it as a curb on free speech. If passed, as now appears likely, the measure would compel large outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to rapidly remove fake news that incites hate, as well as other “criminal” content, or face fines as high as 50 million euros ($53 million).
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet agreed on the draft bill Wednesday, giving it a high chance of approval in the German Parliament before national elections in September. In effect, the move is Germany’s response to a barrage of fake news during last year’s elections in the United States, with officials seeking to prevent a similar onslaught here.
Already, a few fake news reports have emerged in Germany. One falsely alleged that a German girl of Russian descent was raped last year by asylum seekers. Repeated by high-level Russian officials, the reports seemed aimed at Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees.
Merkel is now involved in a strenuous campaign for a fourth term in office.
“The providers of social networks are responsible when their platforms are misused to spread hate crime or illegal false news,” German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement.
The proposed law would apply only within German borders. But Maas said Wednesday he would press for similar measures across the European Union.
A number of European countries have also sought to counter the fake-news scourge. The Czech Republic recently inaugurated a special unit charged with denouncing false reports. Should the German measure become law, however, experts say it would amount to the boldest step yet by a major Western nation to control social-media content. Depending on how obviously false or illegal a post is, companies would have as little as 24 hours to remove it.
In addition to fake news and hate speech, the draft bill would target posts seen as inciting terrorism or spreading child pornography. Officials have cited a surge of hate speech across the Internet as a major factor behind the rise of far-right violence in Germany, including arson attacks at refugee centers and assaults on police officers.
“Germany considers itself a pioneer,” said Markus Beckedahl, a prominent German Internet activist and blogger. “It’s a solo effort . . . but the European Commission will certainly watch closely what Germany is doing.”
Yet the broad nature of the bill prompted critics to call it an overreach that risks becoming de facto censorship. Stephan Scherzer, chairman of the Association of German Magazine Publishers, said the measure could turn big social-media companies into “private opinion police.”
Green Party politician Renate Künast told public broadcaster ARD that the bill could lead to “a sharp limitation of freedom of speech, because there will only be deleting, deleting, deleting.”
One of the companies most affected by the bill is Facebook, which has sought to sidestep such laws by taking voluntary measures to curb the spread of fake news. The company echoed concerns that the bill would wrongly foist upon corporations a level of decision-making on the legality of content that should instead reside with German courts.
“We work very hard to remove illegal content from our platform and are determined to work with others to solve this problem,” the company said in a statement. “As experts have pointed out, this legislation would force private companies rather than the courts to become the judges of what is illegal in Germany.”
But German officials argue that social-media companies are simply not acting quickly enough to deal with damaging posts. Maas cited statistics showing that Facebook has rapidly deleted just 39 percent of the criminal content it was notified about, while Twitter acted quickly to delete only 1 percent of posts cited in user complaints.
Rather than setting a new standard, officials also say they are simply forcing social-media outlets to comply with existing laws governing hate speech and incitement in Germany. Incitement and defamation laws here are far broader than in the United States; for instance, laws on the books forbid defaming German leaders and make denial of the Holocaust a crime.
“There must be just as little room for illegal hate speech on social networks as there is on the street,” Maas said. “We owe it to the victims of hate crimes to enforce this better.”