And despite crying censorship against her, Weidel has also herself forced Facebook to restrict some content. Last month, Weidel earned praise for bringing Facebook “to its knees” in Germany after winning a court case against the company. She demanded that the platform make a post calling her a “Nazi swine” and viciously attacking her sexual orientation completely inaccessible to Facebook users in Germany, even those using a VPN. When she first reported the offensive comment to Facebook in late January, the company quickly made the post invisible to users with German IP addresses. But Weidel, who has a home in Switzerland, noticed that it was still viewable to users who were outside the country, or whose IP addresses made it seem like they were. (The NetzDG stipulates that social-media companies remove illegal posts that are visible to users inside Germany, but does not consider how this could impact the circulation of content across borders.) As a result of her petition, Facebook must ensure that individuals in Germany cannot use a VPN to access illegal content. The easiest way to do this would be to remove offensive posts completely; the court’s forthcoming written decision is expected to explain how the company should comply with the ruling.
Martin Munz, a White & Case attorney representing Facebook, called the offending comment “tasteless” but warned of the repercussions of the ruling: By compelling the social-media company to remove the post, it would, in effect, be enforcing German speech law internationally, even in places where the post’s content would be perfectly legal. Under the ruling, unless Facebook found a workaround, the post would be invisible in other countries too, just because it’s illegal in Germany. “Facebook is not a superjudge,” Munz said.
It is unlikely that Facebook would comply across its entire platform: The penalty would most likely be a fine in Germany if the post remains visible. But that hasn’t stopped the AfD from claiming that Weidel’s case exposed the pointlessness of trying to regulate online speech and the uselessness of the law.
Weidel’s case is the latest in a string of well-publicized incidents that highlight the shortcomings of the German legislation—as well as the thorny problems that could accompany any attempt to bring social-media platforms into step with national law. “It’s sad that today the AfD is making their point in the political sphere as well as in court,” Chan Jo Jun, a lawyer in Wurzburg whose work helped lay the groundwork for the NetzDG, told me. Despite evidence that overblocking is taking place just as Facebook warned it would, there is still broad support for the law, and lawmakers are currently considering revisions that would enable users to contest wrongfully deleted posts.
Weidel’s lawyer, Joachim Steinhöfel, is an outspoken opponent of the NetzDG law. Since August 2016, he has maintained a website called “Facebook’s Wall of Shame,” where he collects posts that do not violate German law but were nevertheless removed from the platform. Users can contest these removals in court, but those proceedings can take weeks, creating a backlog that Steinhöfel called “the digital mass execution of free speech.”