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Post-election, Critics Hope Germany's Hate Speech Law Can Be Revised

FILE - German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session at the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, June 29, 2017.
FILE - German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session at the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, June 29, 2017.

Critics of a new hate speech law in Germany are upbeat that it can be revised after its SocialDemocratic sponsors vowed to drop out of the ruling coalition following last month's national election and go into opposition.

The German parliament in June approved legislation that will allow authorities to fine social media networks up to 50 million euros if they fail to remove hateful postings promptly, despite warnings that the law could limit free expression.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives will start talks in coming weeks on forming a new coalition with the environmental Greens, who abstained from voting for the law, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who opposed it outright.

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.

The new law, which came into effect on October 1, gives social media 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.

Opponents argue the law could damage free speech because the threat of fines will prompt social media companies to censor more content than really necessary.

Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms are scrambling to adapt to its requirements and avoid hefty fines that the law forsees in the event of violation.

The departure from government of Justice Minister Heiko Maas, an SPD member and main driver behind the new hate speech law, offers critics a new chance to get the law overturned or at least revised, according to politicians and industry groups.

Nicola Beer, secretary general of the FDP, vowed in a Tweet to make the law "the shortest-ever in force."

Konstantin von Notz, digital spokesman for the Greens, told Reuters his party would press for "a new start" in many policy areas, including the hate speech law and cyber security.

Bernhard Rohleder, head of the IT industry association, told the Handelsblatt newspaper on Monday that if it succeeded in forming a government, the new coalition should "correct the mistake and eliminate the law without replacement."

Marie-Teresa Weber, who heads the group's consumer law and media policy department, said the legal experts considered the law unconstitutional. "The new coalition should rescind it before the courts do so," she said.

Parliamentary experts said it might be tough to overturn the law completely, but it would likely to be tweaked in coming years once authorities begin to implement it. Affected individuals or companies could also challenge it as unconstitutional, they said.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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