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Germany approves bill curbing online hate crime, fake news

Justice Minister Heiko Maas attends a cabinet meeting in Berlin

The legislation still has to be debated in parliament, but it proposes fines of up to 50 million euros against social media sites repeatedly failing to remove harmful content. Internet companies insist it is impossible to control the massive amounts of text and images being posted on the web.

In the comments on his new proposal, Maas acknowledged that freedom of expression "has huge significance in our democracy", adding at the same time that "freedom of expression ends where criminal law begins" and stressing that the new bill would be only the beginning.

The bill is a response to the onslaught of fake news that emerged during the United States 2016 presidential election. Germany is concerned that fake news could alter their own elections, set to take place this year.

Beyond hate speech and fake news, the draft legislation also covers other illegal content, including child pornography and terror-related activity.

"The providers of social networks are responsible when their platforms are abused to spread hate criminality and criminal false news", German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement Wednesday. Should the German measure become law, however, experts say it would amount to the boldest step yet by a major Western nation to control social media content. "It's a solo effort. but the European Commission will certainly watch closely what Germany is doing".

However, German officials said the companies are failing to meet the target. The new fines, Maas said, are there to make sure they comply with the law.

"We work very hard to remove illegal content from our platform and are determined to work with others to solve this problem", a spokeswoman told the BBC.

And the number of deletes made by the social media companies hugely varied.

The minister pointed out that social networks don't delete enough punishable content, citing research that he said showed Twitter deletes just 1 percent of illegal content flagged by users, while Facebook deletes 39 percent.

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.

Germany poses a particular problem for USA -owned social networking sites accustomed to American standards of free speech. "We owe it to the victims of hate crimes to enforce this better".