German prosecutors have closed an investigation into Facebook Inc.’s
top manager in the country, saying that he couldn’t be held responsible for illegal hate speech on the company’s social network.
The website Spiegel Online cited a spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office in Hamburg as saying that Martin Ott was only responsible for advertising sales, and could not be held legally responsible for racially abusive content that violates German law.
Facebook has been heavily criticized for being slow, or even failing entirely, to take down hate speech from its German users aimed at the wave of migrants and refugees who have arrived in the country in the last year.
Germany is particularly sensitive to the spread of hate speech, given its Nazi past, and there is acute concern at the sharp rise in violence against foreigners in the last year—partly in reaction to incidents such as mass sexual assaults on German women by men of foreign descent on New Year’s Eve.
The investigation, along with public pressure from people such as Würzburg-based lawyer Chan-jo Jun, has raised awkward questions about Facebook’s corporate responsibility for what it publishes, and about whether the law, as it stands, is fit for purpose in a digital age.
German law doesn’t allow the prosecution of companies for criminal acts, only individuals. However, the company has structured its operations so as to be able to claim that none of its employees are actually responsible for the content of the site, which has over 20 million users in Germany.
The closure of the investigation comes two months after Facebook retained outsourcing company Arvato, a unit of media giant Bertelsmann AG, to moderate content on its behalf out of Berlin. However, a spokesman for Arvato said that doesn’t mean that it is legally liable for Facebook’s content.
“For me, the failure to investigate is a total capitulation by German prosecutors in front of the challenge of the Internet,” Christian Solnecke, a lawyer who with Jun had filed a joint complaint to state attorneys last year.
Facebook’s spokeswoman in Germany, Tina Kulow, merely posted on her timeline a picture of the Spiegel story with the hashtag #wonichtsististnichts – “If there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there.”