German prosecutors said Monday they have launched a probe after receiving a complaint alleging that top Facebook bosses including founder Mark Zuckerberg are condoning hate speech. This probe adds to growing pressures on the social network to clamp down on racist content.
The probe comes as top politicians are ratcheting up warnings against the US group. The German justice ministry is also mulling possible penalties if Facebook failed to promptly remove flagged offensive user commentaries.
Concerns have been rising over the vitriolic comments made by some Facebook and Twitter users in Germany. These concerns have gained intensity as public misgivings grow in some quarters over the almost 900,000 asylum seekers who arrived last year.
Confirming a challenge against Facebook, the spokesman of the Munich prosecution service, Florian Weinzierl, told AFP that “a complaint has been filed by a lawyer that accuses, among others, Mr Zuckerberg” of “the offence of incitement”.
His service is examining if it is the “competent office for such claims. It is also examining whether there has been criminal conduct”, he said. He also added that investigators are looking into whether German penal law applies in this case.
Lawyer Chan-jo Jun, who initiated the claim, said he had compiled a list of 438 cases including incitement of hate and violence made on Facebook. Support for terrorist groups were also included among the cases. He said the social network has failed to delete these posts even though they have been repeatedly flagged up as offensive speech.
“The management violated German law, by not removing illegal content from Facebook despite being notified,” Jun said of his complaint. The suit also targets Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Managing director of the northern Europe region Martin Ott was also targetted.
Jun last year filed a similar challenge in the northern city of Hamburg. The prosecutors there rejected the claim, saying that Facebook managers did not fall under German jurisdiction.
Facebook declined comment on the probe. It said “the allegations lack merit and there has been no violation of German law by Facebook or its employees.”
“There is no place for hate on Facebook. We work closely with partners to fight hate speech and foster counter speech,” it added.
50,000 euro fine per post?
The latest challenge against Facebook comes amid repeated calls from the government to get US online networks to take swift action to combat hate speech.
Facebook, Twitter and Google pledged last year December to examine and remove offensive posts in Germany within 24 hours. Yet, users have reported that their requests to take down hate speech have often hit a wall.
Senior politicians in Germany have in recent weeks voiced exasperation over the issue.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas, in a recent interview, said the online giants had taken action only in a minority of cases. He warned of “consequences” if they failed to meet their obligations.
Out of the cases reported to Twitter in Germany, only one percent was erased, he said. Facebook erased 46 percent of reported cases.
The social networks have “up to March next year” to deal with the problem according to Heiko Mass. “If nothing changes, then we will have to oblige them to take their responsibilities more seriously,” he said.
Volker Kauder, a key member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, said the social media groups should face penalties in case of recalcitrance on the issue.
If the companies fail to remove offensive posts within a week after they have been reported, then they should be penalized. Volker suggested fine of 50,000 euros ($55,000) per post.