Free Speech and Social Media – Will the UK follow Germany?
The rise of social media use alongside the rapid development of new social media networks over the past decade has brought up issues relating to the law’s position on what is appropriate to post and share on these networks. This dichotomy between the right freely to express one’s thoughts and beliefs and at the same time have regard to accuracy at both public and individual levels has led to the debate over current defamation laws. This also applies to illegal material and ‘fake news’ posted on social media networks which have largely remained un-policed.
Germany is the latest country to pass laws, called Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (NetzDG), to police better large social media networks, specifically networks such as Facebook and Twitter which have over two million members. It aims to reduce illegal and hate speech content being posted and uploaded by imposing large fines on social networks of up to €50m if they do not remove illegal content and hate speech, with very serious content needing to be removed within a 24 hour time period. This law has however been criticised by all sides of the political spectrum on the basis that it puts a limit on people’s freedom of speech and a considerable amount of pressure on social media companies to remove content within the given time period.
Current Laws on Social Media in the UK
Whilst Germany has historically enacted strict legislation regarding free speech following the Second World War and its aftermath, the UK has taken a different approach to monitoring hate speech and illegal content on social media networks relating to current defamation laws. If a person posts a libellous statement which is false on a network and this causes “serious harm”, they may be liable under the Defamation Act 2013. This also includes re-posting or ‘retweeting’ a post, or sharing that post on a network. Current defamation law targets the actual publisher of the post rather than the social media platform itself, as demonstrated in the famous Lord McAlpine case where the original publisher was forced to pay damages.
Under criminal legislation, hate crime via social media is categorised under specific offences such as harassment, stalking and distributing material. These offences come under legislation such as the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Public Order Act 1986 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which requires the prosecution to demonstrate that an offence was hostile based on a persons, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Despite this, the UK Home Affairs Committee has reputedly expressed serious concerns that social media platforms are not doing enough to tackle hate speech and as a result, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have broadened their hate speech policies in an attempt to remove hate speech filled content. It remains to be seen whether the UK will follow Germany’s lead in actively imposing large fines and strict legislation on social media platforms, but with increasing pressure on the government to act, it seems likely that such platforms will be forced to crack down on hate speech content.
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