Tougher online content regulations pose new challenges for German newsrooms

July 19, 2018 11:00

Germans commonly refer to it as the “Facebook Law.” However, the policy to police social media content is having an impact beyond Silicon Valley, forcing local newsrooms to adapt quickly.
 
The Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz or NetzDG law, which went into effect January 1, requires media companies to remove objectionable posts within 24 hours of notification, or face up to a 50 million euro fine from Germany’s Justice Ministry.
 
“You must be cautious with this new law. We (Germany) are a victim of hate speech. It’s our past, we are probably more sensitive,” said Hero Warrings, editor–in-chief of RTL, a privately owned commercial German television network.
 
RTL has assigned staff to monitor social media content on its sites, instructed to follow internal policies crafted prior to the new law.
 
As more news content moves online and away from traditional platforms including newspapers, radio and television, the NetzDG law seeks to align digital content with existing post-war German limits on expression and opinion.
 
Freedom of expression is granted under Article 5 of the country’s constitution but there are limits which can impact what journalists report. For example, a public insult is punishable by law, as are certain forms of satire. An early test of the NetzDG law took place in January when a  German satirical magazine’s Twitter account was blocked after it parodied anti-Muslim commentary.
 
“It’s hard. We don’t want to censor. It’s not the aim. It’s a very difficult task to decide if it’s hate speech or can be left alone,” said Julia Rubner, editor of online news content at MDR, a public radio and television network. With a newsroom staff of 40 in its Dresden bureau and market share of 20 percent, Rubner admits more of her time is now taken up by ensuring MDR site content complies with the new law.
 
“It takes a huge amount of work and time from our colleagues that is not seen. A lot of people here don’t see what we are dealing with the whole day.” Rubner says MDL has one current staffer assigned to monitoring newsroom sites for content compliance but adds the newsroom needs a second person to manage the growing responsibility.
 
The law has faced public criticism in its first six months, including opposition from the Association of German Journalists. The trade organization has said it opposes NetzGD in part because the threat of heavy fines could result in overly cautious media companies blocking more content than necessary.
 
Ulrich Brümmer, regional MDR studio manager, and member of the Association echoes this sentiment, saying he prefers to use existing station guidelines to eliminate hate speech and other clearly objectionable content from MDR news sites. “Even if some people are insulted, if you abolish all of it, that is the end of the discussion,” Brümmer said.
 
In Berlin, Andreas Rickman manages Bild’s 30-person new platforms department. Bild, with 19 million unique daily digital visitors to its news sites is in the midst of a content delivery shift to meet the changing habits of younger consumers. While maintaining the 8th largest worldwide tabloid newspaper circulation (2 million daily copies) Rickman and his team are charged with finding new online revenue streams for Bild’s parent company Axel Springer. The team says it has found success monetizing news content for younger audiences on YouTube but has yet to do the same on its Facebook pages.
 
There is uncertainty as well around how the NetzDG might impact these initiatives at Bild, Rickman told a group of visiting American broadcast journalists during a meeting in June.  “We don’t know what will come, it is hard to say,” Rickman said.
 
As of June 2018, RTL, MDR and Bild representatives say they have not faced any fines as a result of the NetzDG law.

Joe Sampson is a Senior Clinical Professor of journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was a RIAS-RTDNA fellow in June 2018. Learn more about the RIAS program here.