Can the German focus on human dignity reign in Facebook?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


Unlike in the United States, freedom of speech is “not the most important civil right” in Germany, the digital-rights activist Markus Beckedahl told me. Article Five of the German constitution, which governs the right to freedom of expression, explicitly protects freedom of opinion, a narrower category than freedom of speech writ large. Instead, Article One of Germany’s postwar constitution instructs, “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” This notion “means you are not allowed to claim false things about me, because it hurts my dignity,” Beckedahl said. “You are not allowed to tell anyone in public lies about me, or I can take you to court.”

This concept of human dignity originated in West Germany’s 1949 constitution, which was heavily influenced by the occupying Allied nations; under the banner of human dignity, the constitution also explicitly bans volksverhetzung, or “incitement to hatred,” as well as any public endorsement and invocation of National Socialist ideas and symbols. The invocation of human dignity carries immense moral force, and parallels the language of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights.

Illegal speech in Germany, then, is speech that violates the human dignity of an individual or group. Fittingly, the concept is repeatedly invoked in the regulations of the criminal code that govern the dissemination of illegal content. According to German law, distributing material that documents “cruel or otherwise inhuman acts of violence” is illegal because it violates human dignity. National laws banning the dissemination of propaganda and incitement to hatred mean that all “written material” of a malicious, insulting, and defamatory nature targeting a national, religious, ethnic, or racial group is illegal. Yet while the concept of human dignity is unassailable in Germany’s offline world, Facebook’s community standards operate according to a sweeping, often vague set of guidelines that leave much open to interpretation. The country’s Facebook Law is an attempt to see whether human dignity can survive the internet—and its success or failure could very well determine what it means to be human, and online, for the rest of the world.

…In July, Facebook relaunched a goodwill campaign, dubbed “Make Facebook Your Facebook,” to salvage its image across Germany. Ads posing some of the most basic questions and concerns about the social network popped up on streets and in newspapers: “Can you delete your profile completely?”; “I have no idea who gets to see my posts”; “Private but shared with 500 friends? Not really.” Each was accompanied by friendly explanations in small print: “You can delete your account any time. We’d hate to see you go”; “You can control who sees what. We think your privacy is important”; “Some things just aren’t meant to be seen by everybody.” And while Sandberg toured Germany in September, the company announced new measures to limit who can buy ads on its network.

…“The entire Facebook Law is just a result of Facebook’s stubbornness,” Jun said. “If they had at least pretended to comply with German law, it would never have happened.” For him, the law’s passage was a triumph, an acknowledgement of the fact that Germany needed new laws to deal with social media, and evidence that his protests had been heard. For Steinhofel, however, the Facebook Law is superfluous because, as he told the BBC, the company is already responsible for content posted on its network.

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