Read: It’s time to regulate the internet
Radio was different. Radio only became central to Nazi aims after Hitler was elected chancellor in January 1933, but Goebbels quickly exercised power over the medium, because the state already controlled its infrastructure and content. State control over radio had been intended to defend democracy. It unintentionally laid the groundwork for the Nazi propaganda machine.
Radio emerged as a new technology in the early 1920s, and the bureaucrat tasked with developing regulations for it in the Weimar Republic, Hans Bredow, initially had high hopes. He thought that radio could broadcast education and entertainment to bring the German population together after the divisive loss of World War I, and believed that radio should not broadcast political content, fearing it might exacerbate an already febrile environment.
Initially, Bredow allowed private companies to broadcast, and only from the mid-1920s on did stations start to air some news. This seemed dangerous to Bredow and other officials, who worried that news could stoke uprisings or antidemocratic sentiment.
Weimar bureaucrats began exerting ever greater state supervision over radio content to try to depoliticize it. As the Weimar Republic became more and more politically unstable, Bredow and others pushed through reforms in 1926 and 1932 that mandated direct state supervision of radio content. Bredow believed that increased state direction would prevent Weimar democracy from failing.
Ironically, this effort played right into the Nazis’ hands, and meant that the Nazis could seize immediate control over radio content when they came to power. Bredow was imprisoned for trying to stand up for democratic values. (After World War II, he helped to reestablish radio in democratic West Germany. There is now even a media institute in Hamburg named after him.)
The Nazi example, though extreme, reminds us that well-intentioned laws can have tragic unintended consequences. Singapore, for example, has passed the Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill, allowing the country’s government to require platforms and private chat apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram to remove what the authorities see as false statements “against the public interest.” The law also enables officials to prosecute people who spread those false statements, although the law does not define what it means by a “false statement.” The deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division told the BBC that the law was “a direct threat to freedom of expression and is something the entire world should be alarmed about.”
Read: The death of the public square
German politicians drew their own lessons from history to try to protect democracy. In 2017, Germany passed the Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or NetzDG). A mouthful of a compound noun, the law requires social-media companies with more than 2 million unique users in Germany to remove within 24 hours flagged posts that violate any of 22 different statutes of German speech law online. The statutes range from “incitement to hatred” and “distribution of child pornography” to blasphemy. Any violation would draw a fine of up to 50 million euros ($56 million) per post.