Activist German attorneys who have faced resistance in their quest to hold Facebook accountable to Germany's hate speech laws are now accusing Mark Zuckerberg, the social network's founder and chief executive, of facilitating the posting of anti-Semitic and other inflammatory content online.
It is illegal to incite hatred and to distribute or publicly display Nazi symbols in Germany, but they can still be found on Facebook's platform. The lawyers are therefore pushing for criminal charges against Zuckerberg and want him to pay a €150 million fine (around $163 million) for the violations.
"I think Facebook has changed German society — not for the good," said Chan-jo Jun, a Bavaria-based lawyer who launched the challenge last week along with Cologne attorney Christian Solmecke, in an interview with VICE News. "I wanted to find out if the German legal system would prevail against an American company."
Jun has a list of more than 300 Facebook pages and posts that contain swastikas and other Nazi-related images as well as calls for violence against the Middle Eastern and North African migrants who have flooded Germany over the past year.
Facebook has removed some of them from the internet. Others are still up, like one that depicts German Justice Minister Heiko Mass wearing a German army officer's hat. Another post of stylizes President Barack Obama wearing a beard, yarmulke, and Orthodox Jewish-style side curls with the caption "Nobel Zionism Prize" and an accompanying message in German that asks, "Why is this man is not sitting in a concentration camp?"
Jun and Solmecke recently filed the lawsuit against Zuckerberg because German prosecutors refused to take action on another lawsuit that they filed against the company's German executives last year. Those prosecutors claimed that the executives were marketers who couldn't be held responsible for the Silicon Valley company's behavior, according to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.
"It was obvious they didn't have a lot of fun with the case," said Jun, referring to the prosecutors. "It's a lot of work, and politically it's controversial. They took a detour and an easy way out of that. We are not going to accept that."
Jun and his colleague then filed a lawsuit targeting Martin Ott, a Facebook executive who oversees the website's operations in northern, central, and eastern Europe. Prosecutors are now investigating the lawyers' claims against Ott, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported.
Figuring that prosecutors aren't likely to prosecute Ott, however, Jun and Solmecke decided to go after the man who invented Facebook in his Harvard University dorm room in 2004.
When asked about the lawyers' latest move against the company and its treatment of hate speech, Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment.
But Zuckerberg knows that his company is dogged by the issue, particularly after a live microphone caught German Chancellor Angela Merkel asking him last September what he was doing to police racist and xenophobic content on the service. He addressed the matter last month during a town hall meeting in Berlin, saying that Facebook has been striving to address the kinds of posts that Jun and his colleague complain about.
"Hate speech has no place on Facebook and in our community," he said. "Until recently in Germany, I don't think we were doing a good enough job, and I think we will continue needing to do a better and better job."
Late last year, Facebook joined a German organization called the Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers, which also helps Google and the European subsidiaries of other tech giants comply with German law. The idea was for the company to learn how to better handle reports of such content and work more effectively with the German authorities.
But Jun noted that Facebook still routinely leaves up hate speech despite its talk about working harder to comply with German laws. Whether his legal challenges will succeed is an open question, but he is proud to be behind an effort to push Facebook to devote more attention to curbing hurtful posts.
"The complaints created an awareness that what Facebook is doing is not just a social problem but a legal problem," he said. "I'm glad to be part of that."
Jonathan Vick, assistant director for cyberhate response at the Anti-Defamation League, has a less sanguine view of Jun and Solmecke's campaign.The problem with hate speech stems more from the hate and less from the speech, he said, arguing that the blocking of Facebook posts doesn't get at the root cause of persistent anti-Semitism or xenophobia in Germany.
"You're not changing the behavior," Vick remarked. "You're simply changing the outward appearance."
Facebook needs to follow local laws, he added, but he said that the company can't possibly police the billion or so people who use the service every day. The company relies on users complaining about offensive posts in order to be made aware of content that should be taken down. Artificial intelligence that might screen out ostensibly offensive content raises serious ethical questions about freedom of speech, Vick noted.
"You can't just flip a switch on any of these platforms and make magic," he said.
Vick doesn't think litigation of the sort pursued by Jun and Solmecke is the answer, particularly since Facebook cannot generally be said to be a cauldron of hate.
"The confrontational approach isn't the most productive," he said. "A legal resolution can be very long and very expense. Sitting down at the table as Zuckerberg did in Germany… is really the most productive way forward."
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