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Free Speech in the Filter Age

In a democracy, the rights of the many cannot come at the expense of the rights of the few. In the age of algorithms, government must, more than ever, ensure the protection of vulnerable voices, even erring on victims’ side at times.

OXFORD – Germany’s Network Enforcement Act – according to which social-media platforms like Facebook and YouTube could be fined €50 million ($63 million) for every “obviously illegal” post within 24 hours of receiving a notification – has been controversial from the start. After it entered fully into effect in January, there was a tremendous outcry, with critics from all over the political map arguing that it was an enticement to censorship. Government was relinquishing its powers to private interests, they protested.

So, is this the beginning of the end of free speech in Germany?

Of course not. To be sure, Germany’s Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz (or NetzDG) is the strictest regulation of its kind in a Europe that is growing increasingly annoyed with America’s powerful social-media companies. And critics do have some valid points about the law’s weaknesses. But the possibilities for free expression will remain abundant, even if some posts are deleted mistakenly.

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