THE German government has announced plans to hit social networks that fail to remove hate speech and fake news with fines of up to €50m as part of tough new measures on websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
In an unprecedented move by a European country against social media companies, the draft law would demand that posts clearly containing illegal content, such as racist language or Holocaust denial, be removed within 24 hours. The measures would also order companies to run 24-hour helplines so that concerned users can report offensive material.
In cases where it is not immediately clear if the material is illegal or libellous, companies have up to seven days to rule on whether to remove it, but they must inform the complainant either way.
The draconian proposals come amid growing concern in Germany that racist and fabricated news stories could influence its forthcoming federal elections, as they are believed to have done during the US election campaign.
The draft law was proposed by Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, and is significantly tougher than previous suggestions to impose €500,000 fines.
The measures are part of a bill that will be put to the German parliament in an effort to combat malicious activity and disinformation campaigns online.
Facebook removes 39pc of flagged content, while Twitter deletes just 1pc, according to research released alongside the proposals.
"It is now clear that we must further increase the pressure on social networks," said Mr Maas.
Facebook has already introduced a tool in Germany that lets users flag suspicious content in response to claims that "fake news" on the site influenced the outcome of the US presidential election. It has also said it planned to employ 700 people in Berlin to monitor flagged material by the end of the year.
If the measures pass into law it will require social media companies to employ staff that monitor content around the clock. Individual members of staff responsible for handling complaints could also be fined up to €5m for failing to comply with the regulations.
Bitkom, the German digital trade association, told the 'Financial Times' the proposals would be "utterly impossible to implement in operational terms".
Richard Allen, head of Facebook's Europe division, insisted it was "doing far more than any other company to try to get on top of hate speech".
"We have clear rules against hate speech and are working hard to remove such content from our platform," the company said in a statement, adding it was working with governments to tackle the issue.
However, Facebook said tests it commissioned showed higher rates of removal than those cited by Mr Maas.
Germany poses a particular problem for US-owned social networking sites accustomed to American standards of free speech. Due to its Nazi past, Germany bans public Holocaust denial and any overt promotion of racism.
Meanwhile, MPs in Britain have warned Twitter, Facebook and Google they have a "terrible reputation" over their efforts to tackle abusive content.
The internet giants came under fire as senior representatives were grilled by a House of Commons committee.
Chairwoman Yvette Cooper cited a string of examples of material on social media sites. The Labour MP told the three witnesses she found none of their responses "particularly convincing".