By Emma Thomasson
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's cabinet approved a plan on Wednesday to fine social networks up to 50 million euros ($53 million) if they fail to remove hateful postings quickly, prompting concerns the law could limit free expression.
Germany has some of the world's toughest laws covering defamation, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, with prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities. But few online cases are prosecuted.
"There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street," Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement, adding that he would seek to push for similar rules at a European level.
The issue has taken on more urgency as German politicians worry that a proliferation of fake news and racist content, particularly about 1 million migrants who have arrived in the last two years, could sway public opinion in the run-up to national elections in September.
However, organizations representing digital companies, consumers and journalists, accused the government of rushing a law to parliament that could damage free speech.
"It is the wrong approach to make social networks into a content police," said Volker Tripp, head of the Digital Society Association consumer group.
'COMPANIES AS JUDGES'
A spokesman for Facebook, which has 29 million active users in Germany - more than a third of the total population - said the company was working hard to remove illegal content, but expressed concern at the draft law.
"This legislation would force private companies rather than the courts to become the judges of what is illegal in Germany," he said, adding that Facebook's partner Arvato would employ up to 700 staff in Berlin for "content moderation" by year's end.
A spokesman for Twitter declined to comment on the legislation, but said the company had made a number of changes in recent weeks, including adding new filtering options, putting limits on accounts it had identified as engaging in abusive behavior and stopping those users from creating new accounts.
The draft law would give social networks 24 hours to delete or block obviously criminal content and seven days to deal with less clear-cut cases, with an obligation to report back to the person who filed the complaint about how they handled the case.
Failure to comply could see a company fined up to 50 million euros, and the company's chief representative in Germany fined up to 5 million euros.
Bitkom, an association which represents digital companies, said the government should build up specialist teams to monitor online content for potential infringements, rather than expect social networks to do it themselves.
"Given the short deadlines and the severe penalties, providers will be forced to delete doubtful statements as a precaution. That would have a serious impact on free speech on the internet," said Bitkom manager Bernhard Rohleder.
Since it was unveiled last month, the draft law has been amended to include new categories of content, such as child pornography. It also now allows courts to order social networks to reveal the identity of the user behind criminal posts.
To address free speech concerns, the legislation was tweaked to make clear that a fine would not necessarily be imposed after just one breach of the law. "It is clear that freedom of expression is of huge importance in our vibrant democracy ... however, freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins," Maas said. Maas said a government survey showed Facebook deleted just 39 percent of content deemed criminal and Twitter only 1 percent, even though they signed a code of conduct in late 2015 including a pledge to delete hate speech within 24 hours.
(Additional reporting by Thorsten Severin; Editing by Jon Boyle)