As tech giants like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter face strongly worded questions here in the United States about their responsibility for the rise of fake news, Germany is bringing out the big guns.
The German government wants to levy a fine up to an astonishing 50 million euros, that’s over $58 million US, when “manifestly unlawful” content stays on the site for more than 24 hours. Wow, hit ’em where it hurts Germany.
You can probably appreciate that of all countries, Germany is a little self-conscious about authoritarianism, alt-right nationalist groups and neo-nazi zealots. This is a country that has responded to its darkest hours of World War II by transforming itself into one of the most vigilant governments in the world. They go out of their way to safeguard against human rights violations.
Even though the Facebook audience is small in Germany, only 28 million people have accounts. This law sends a strong message. If you’re going to reap the profits from ads placed on your network, you are also responsible for the content.
For the longest time, internet platforms wanted to be agnostic to the content that sat on top of their infrastructure. They simply wanted to be the backbone. So sites like Craigslist or Backpage would say, we’re not responsible for prostitution and human trafficking. We only host the ads. Or hosting companies like GoDaddy or Network Solutions would say, we’re not responsible for this skinhead website, we’re only a hosting company.
I use to be firmly in that camp. I would say that the internet is the tool and people can choose to use it for good or evil. But things have evolved. I’ve realized I was wrong. The thing that changed my mind is watching how companies like Facebook have turned their audience into the product. We give away an amazing amount of personal information to them, and in exchange, they mine that data to sell us everything under the sun. Including news stories that are verifiably false.
Up until now, they could say, “Not our problem. We just take the money and place the ads. It’s up to you to decide if it’s fake or not.”
But I like what Germany has done. In essence, they have drawn a line in the sand. If you are going to make billions of dollars by being able to place ads with laser precision, then those ads need to be for things that are real. In the same way I can’t take money on a product that doesn’t actually exist, they can’t make money on a story that is posing as news when it’s false.
There were thousands of fake news ads accepted by Facebook from Russia. A $58 million fine for every one that stayed up longer than 24 hours would solve this problem really quickly.
Good idea, Germany.
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