Tech & Terrorism: Germany Fines Telegram For Failing To Comply With Online Content Moderation Law

(New York, N.Y.) — Last week, the German Federal Office for Justice announced that it had issued two fines totaling €5.125 million against Telegram for failing to comply with the country’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), Germany’s online content moderation law. The Federal Office revealed Telegram failed to establish tools that would allow users to report illegal content and failed to set up a legal entity in Germany to receive official communications. Updates made to NetzDG in 2021 require tech companies to improve their users’ ability to report unlawful content. In Germany, large tech companies must remove content that is ‘clearly illegal’—including terrorist content—within 24 hours after it is reported by users.

While Telegram may appeal the fine, this action by the Federal Office is an important milestone for the real-life enforcement and application of the law. Earlier this year, German federal police warned that Telegram is becoming a “medium for radicalization.” Imposing a fine demonstrates Germany’s commitment to holding tech companies accountable for allowing illegal content to remain on their platform.

“The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) applauds the Federal Office for holding Telegram accountable for failing to comply with laws that help reduce terrorist and extremist content on its platform,” said CEP Executive Director David Ibsen. “NetzDG narrowly targets content that is obviously illegal and that can have very real and deadly consequences if not removed. With these fines, the Federal Office is sending a strong message that tech companies cannot ignore the law and that implementing stronger content moderation on their platforms is in their financial and reputational interests.”

In 2018, CEP and the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) authored a joint report on the performance of NetzDG. The law was predicted by critics to lead to overreporting, therefore suppressing free speech, as well as the stifling of innovation as smaller companies would not be able to absorb the cost of resources needed to comply with the law. The CEP-CEPS report proved that these arguments were baseless and the concerns unfounded. Six months after NetzDG’s implementation, the law did not result in a flood of reports or over-blocking. Furthermore, the study found that the expense of implementing NetzDG was minimal at 1 percent of total revenue.

In 2020, CEP Germany released a follow-up NetzDG study that tested the tech industry’s compliance with the law between January 31 and February 14, 2020. The law in its current form requires online platforms to remove “manifestly illegal” content within 24 hours only after it has been reported by users. CEP’s study revealed that YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram removed a mere 43.5 percent of clearly extremist and terrorist content, even after that material was reported for its illegal nature under the NetzDG. CEP Germany’s findings suggested that this “notice and takedown” method for removing illegal content can only be effective if platforms are being searched continuously and systemically for such material.

To read the CEP-CEPS’ joint report, Germany’s NetzDG: A Key Test For Combatting Online Hate, please click here.

To read the results of CEP Germany’s NetzDG study and the policy paper, please click here.

To read about the failings of social media companies’ “notice and takedown” content moderation systems, please click here.

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On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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