Facebook outlines measures to combat racist content

FACEBOOK said on Monday that it would work with the German Justice Ministry to fight xenophobic and racist messages on the social network’s platform, bending to government pressure to clamp down on hate messages against migrants online.\r\n\r\nGerman Justice Minister Heiko Maas said after a meeting with Facebook executives in Berlin that the ministry would coordinate the creation of a task force with Facebook and other Internet competitors to evaluate whether inappropriate content flagged by users falls under freedom of speech or is illegal under German law.\r\n\r\n“The idea is to better identify content that is against the law and remove it faster from the Web,” Mr Maas added.\r\n\r\nFacebook also said it would give financial support to organisations that collect complaints against online hate speech to help remove comments faster. The social network earlier in the day announced other measures, including a task force to encourage users to draft countermessages to hate speech on the Web and campaigns to generally strengthen antihate speech on the Internet.\r\n\r\nHowever, Facebook stopped short of saying it would broaden the types of content it removes, arguing that its existing rules already ban hate speech and incitement to violence, which it removes upon request. Facebook also said it complies with German law in removing content not permitted under local legislation.\r\n\r\nThe tussle is the latest in a series of debates over how to police social-media platforms owned by US companies, exposing differences in the standards for what counts as free or banned speech in different parts of the world.\r\n\r\nCompanies now routinely remove postings from local versions of websites when they breach local law, such as German laws banning Holocaust denial. But the companies have resisted calls in the past year by countries such as France and Germany to actively police their platforms for extremist or terrorist content, arguing that they shouldn’t be made to decide what constitutes legitimate debate. Instead, in some countries the companies have struck deals to speed up removals of specific posts authorities themselves flag as illegal.\r\n\r\nThe German government in recent weeks lashed out at Facebook for not being fast and thorough enough in censuring a wave of hate messages against refugees and migrants on the social network, which have spiked as the country has received record numbers of asylum seekers.\r\n\r\n“If people, using their own name, incite hatred against other people, not only the government has to act, but also Facebook should do something against those statements,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week told a local daily newspaper, Rheinische Post. A spokeswoman for the German Justice Ministry said many people had complained in recent weeks that they had notified Facebook of messages containing hate speech that they had found weren’t removed.\r\n\r\n“We have a very effective system, but it’s not 100% effective,” Facebook’s public policy chief in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Richard Allan, said in a joint news conference after the meeting.\r\n\r\nThe task force is likely to help improve the removal of postings that are criminal under German law, Mr Allan added.\r\n\r\nUnder German criminal law, it is punishable by as many as three years in prison if a person renders public a comment that incites hatred or violence against a part of the population for its ethnic or religious background. A person can also face a prison sentence for attacking the human dignity of a person or group of people by insulting that group.\r\n\r\nHolocaust denial is punishable by as many as five years in prison.\r\n\r\nGovernment demands on technology companies to remove controversial content have been mounting. Such requests on Twitter nearly doubled last year to almost 5,000 world-wide. In Germany, Facebook says it removed 60 postings in the second half of 2014 — nearly double the figure from the first half — under laws that restrict advocacy of right-wing extremism.\r\n\r\nThe pressure from Berlin comes as violent acts against migrants have surged in recent months, as Germany has received record numbers of migrants. The federal criminal police office counted 337 criminal acts against asylum homes in the first eight months of the year, compared with 198 for all of 2014. Facebook said it cooperates with German authorities when users try to coordinate serious criminal acts via its platform.\r\n\r\nFacebook reiterated that it takes a hard line against any incitement to violence on its service, and bans hate speech, defined as attacks on users based on their ethnic or religious affiliations. But the company also stressed that it is important to allow political debates on its platform, in particular about controversial issues. Facebook has said it doesn’t want to take an editorial stance by endorsing views it agrees with and suppressing those it doesn’t.\r\n\r\nFacebook executives argued in Monday’s meeting that they shouldn’t be held responsible for policing derogatory postings if they don’t violate German law or Facebook’s own policies banning incitement to violence or hate speech, according to a person familiar with the matter. They also underscored that Facebook has a team of German speakers who work quickly to remove content that does break its rules, the person said.\r\n\r\nFacebook, for instance, says that it will remove any incitement to violence or hate speech directed at people based on their ethnic, racial or national identity, their religious affiliation, sexual identity or disability. But the person familiar with the matter said the company doesn’t consider refugees a protected category, under the principle that users can criticise others based on their actions, not on their identities. – Business Day