When the police pounded the door before dawn at a home in northwest Germany, a bleary-eyed young man in his boxer shorts answered. The officers asked for his father, who was at work.
They told him that his 51-year-old father was accused of violating laws against online hate speech, insults and misinformation. He had shared an image on Facebook with an inflammatory statement about immigration falsely attributed to a German politician. “Just because someone rapes, robs or is a serious criminal is not a reason for deportation,” the fake remark said.
The police then scoured the home for about 30 minutes, seizing a laptop and tablet as evidence, prosecutors said.
At that exact moment in March, a similar scene was playing out at about 100 other homes across Germany, part of a coordinated nationwide crackdown that continues to this day. After sharing images circulating on Facebook that carried a fake statement, the perpetrators had devices confiscated and some were fined.
“We are making it clear that anyone who posts hate messages must expect the police to be at the front door afterward,” Holger Münch, the head of the Federal Criminal Police Office, said after the March raids.
Hate speech, extremism, misogyny and misinformation are well-known byproducts of the internet. But the people behind the most toxic online behavior typically avoid any personal major real-world consequences. Most Western democracies like the United States have avoided policing the internet because of free speech rights, leaving a sea of slurs, targeted harassment and tweets telling public figures they’d be better off dead. At most, Facebook, YouTube or Twitter remove a post or suspend their account.
But over the past several years, Germany has forged another path, criminally prosecuting people for online hate speech.
German authorities have brought charges for insults, threats and harassment. The police have raided homes, confiscated electronics and brought people in for questioning. Judges have enforced fines worth thousands of dollars each and, in some cases, sent offenders to jail. The threat of prosecution, they believe, will not eradicate hate online, but push some of the worst behavior back into the shadows.
In doing so, they have flipped inside out what, to American ears, it means to protect free speech. The authorities in Germany argue that they are encouraging and defending free speech by providing a space where people can share opinions without fear of being attacked or abused.
“There has to be a line you cannot cross,” said Svenja Meininghaus, a state prosecutor who attended the raid of the father’s house. “There has to be consequences.”
But even in Germany, a country where the stain of Nazism drives a belief that free speech is not absolute, the crackdown is generating fierce debate:
How far is too far?
A Turning Point
Walter Lübcke was a well-liked if unassuming local politician in the central German state of Hesse. He was known among constituents more for his advocacy of wind turbines and a bigger airport than provocation. But as a supporter of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies, he became a regular target of online abuse after a 2015 video of him had circulated in far-right circles. In the video, he suggested to a local audience that anyone who did not support taking in refugees could leave Germany themselves.
In June 2019, he was shot and killed by a neo-Nazi on the terrace of his house at close range, shocking the public to the depths of far-right extremism in the country and how online hate could lead to grave real-world violence.
Publicly displaying swastikas and other Nazi symbolism is illegal in Germany, as is denying or diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. Remarks considered to be inciting hatred are punishable with jail time. It is a crime to insult somebody in public.
But authorities struggled to translate the speech laws to the internet age, where the volume of toxicity is seemingly endless and often masked by anonymity.
At first, policymakers in Germany attempted to put more pressure on internet companies like Facebook to crack down. In 2017, the country passed a landmark law, the Network Enforcement Act, that forced Facebook and others to take down hate speech in as little as 24 hours of being notified or face fines.
The Spread of Misinformation and Falsehoods
Companies beefed up their content moderation efforts to comply, but many German policymakers said the law did not go far enough because it targeted companies rather than the individuals who were posting vile content. Hate speech and online abuse continued to spread after the law passed, as did the rise in far-right extremism.
The assassination of Mr. Lübcke represented a turning point, intensifying efforts to prosecute people who broke the speech laws online. And in the last year, the government adopted rules that made it easier to arrest those who target public figures online.
Daniel Holznagel, a former Justice Ministry official who helped draft the internet enforcement laws passed in 2017, compared the crackdown to going after copyright violators. He said people stopped illegally downloading music and movies as much after authorities began issuing fines and legal warnings.
“You can’t prosecute everyone, but it will have a big effect if you show that prosecution is possible,” said Mr. Holznagel, who is now a judge.
The Internet Police
Red evidence files fill the hallways, bookshelves and desks of the special task force located in a converted courthouse in Göttingen. The files are full of printouts of words and images that no one sharing them probably ever imagined would be collected by government prosecutors in real life: Facebook comments, tweets and Telegram posts depicting antisemitism, racism, violent threats, insults and more.
“This person was only 17 years old,” Ms. Meininghaus, who works in the unit, said as she thumbed through more than 20 pages of abhorrent images and memes, some lionizing Hitler, others making jokes about Anne Frank.
No national figures exist on the total number of people charged with online speech-related crimes. But in a review of German state records, The New York Times found more than 8,500 cases. Overall, more than 1,000 people have been charged or punished since 2018, a figure many experts said is probably much higher.
Much of the daily work policing the internet falls to local teams like the one in Göttingen that is responsible for covering cases across Lower Saxony, a vast state in northern Germany. Created in 2020, the group of six lawyers and investigators is one of the most aggressive in the country. Last year, it investigated 566 internet speech-related crimes, a figure the unit expects to more than double in 2022. About 28 percent of those investigations resulted in a fine or other punishment. In one case involving a man making death threats on Telegram, the prosecutors had him committed to a psychiatric institution.
The team is stretched thin, constantly gathering evidence for prosecutions, drafting search and arrest warrants, responding to lawyers asking to have their client’s devices returned and preparing for court. Authorities in Lower Saxony raid homes up to multiple times per month, sometimes with a local television crew in tow.
Frank-Michael Laue, who started the unit after a two-decade career as a criminal prosecutor, said that stiff penalties draw attention and change behavior. He boasted of fining a well-known painter in the community the equivalent of roughly $10,000 for sharing insults about Turkish immigrants.
When people refuse to give access to their smartphones for evidence, Mr. Laue said, the device can be sent to a lab operated by the federal government that uses software that can bypass passwords. Made by a company called Cellebrite, it is the same kind of software used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.
Investigators scour social media feeds, publicly available records and government data to build cases. Swen Weiland, a software developer turned internet hate speech investigator, is in charge of unmasking people behind anonymous accounts. He hunts for clues about where a person lives and works, and connections to friends and family. After an unknown Twitter user compared Covid restrictions to the Holocaust, he used an online registry of licensed architects to help identify the culprit as a middle-aged woman.
“I try to find out what they do in their normal life,” Mr. Weiland said. “If I find where they live or their relatives then I can get the real person. The internet does not forget.”
Police officers and prosecutors say that detective work is required because social media companies rarely turn over user information unless there is an imminent threat of violence. Meta, Google and Twitter recently won a court challenge to stop an expansion of the Network Enforcement Act that would have required the companies to notify the government when they detected online hate speech and other illicit content, a rule that could have led to thousands of new cases per year.
Google said in a statement that it provided information in 85 percent of requests from authorities, but that the proposed law to provide authorities user data without a legal order “undermines fundamental rights.” Twitter said it worked closely with law enforcement in Germany, while balancing “protecting freedom of expression.” Meta declined to comment.
‘I Couldn’t Sleep’
The misleading Facebook post with the made-up statement on immigration had followed Margarete Bause, a former Green Party member of the German parliament, since at least 2018. She would know it had gone viral again when people would reference it when calling her office to hurl abuse.
Ms. Bause was a champion for human rights and humanitarian aid while in parliament. The fake remarks had twisted her support for immigration into an extreme view to incite far-right activists.
And it was that post that eventually led to the raid of that 51-year-old father’s house in northwest Germany. The father, whose name was not shared by authorities because of Germany’s strict privacy laws, is still under investigation in Lower Saxony as police examine the contents of his devices. Even if he did not know the comment attributed to Ms. Bause was fake, he still faces punishment because “the accused bears the risk of spreading a false quote without checking it,” prosecutors said.
The father faces a fine of about 1,400 euros (about $1,378), a penalty welcomed by Ms. Bause. “That’s a warning shot that they can’t just accuse and hurt people with impunity,” she said.
Most perpetrators, though, go unpunished. With limited resources, authorities only prosecute a fraction of posts considered illegal speech, often because the person behind it cannot be quickly identified.
Hassmelden, a nonprofit based in Berlin that helped people file complaints, used to receive more than 4,000 submissions per day. The group closed last year after it could not keep up with the case load.
“People withdraw from debate more and more and don’t dare to express their political opinion,” said Josephine Ballon, legal director at HateAid, a nonprofit in Berlin that provides legal aid for victims of online abuse. “Too many cases are abandoned.”
Amina Yousaf, a 32-year-old political activist in Göttingen, said she had been a target of abuse and violent threats from far-right activists since writing a 2015 blog post about the difficulties of being a woman of color in Germany. Ms. Yousaf’s home address was published online, making her fearful that her sister, whom she resembles and lived with at the time, would be mistakenly attacked. Another person tweeted the address of a shop her parents owned and lived next to, saying “they should be careful.”
A lawyer helped her file criminal complaints, but the police did nothing more than give her a brochure about online hate, saying the comments did not break the law or they could not identify the perpetrators. Twitter removed some threatening posts, but most remained online. Facebook refused to turn over information about the administrators of a group page targeting Ms. Yousaf.
Abuse like this brings lasting psychological trauma, victims said.
“What really got me was this really sexual aggression, all kinds of things that very explicitly said should happen to me, with pictures,” said Stefanie von Berg, a local politician in Hamburg targeted by far-right activists. She said it took years of therapy to overcome the resulting fear and anxiety. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
Sometimes, victims decide to do the sleuthing themselves.
Last year, Christian Endt, a journalist in Berlin whose coverage of Covid drew a steady stream of insults online, reached a breaking point. After an anonymous Twitter user had called him “stupid” and mentally ill, he embarked on a mission to see if he could get the person prosecuted.
The person’s account did not include a real name, but it had a photo on the profile page. That allowed Mr. Endt to perform an image search to see where else on the internet the image could be found. It led him to a LinkedIn page of a small-business owner. From there, he found the individual’s company website, phone number and home address.
Mr. Endt compiled his finding in a memo and sent it to the local district attorney. In December, the case landed with the online hate unit in Lower Saxony, where the culprit lived. After reviewing the evidence, they sent the man a fine worth about €1,000.
“I was not even sure if what this guy wrote was a crime or not,” Mr. Endt said. “In the end, I’m happy they did something about it and this person got a signal that there are some limits on free speech.”
A Criminal Insult?
Last year, Andy Grote, a city senator responsible for public safety and the police in Hamburg, broke the local social distancing rules — which he was in charge of enforcing — by hosting a small election party in a downtown bar.
After Mr. Grote later made remarks admonishing others for hosting parties during the pandemic, a Twitter user wrote: “Du bist so 1 Pimmel” (“You are such a penis”).
Three months later, six police officers raided the house of the man who had posted the insult, looking for his electronic devices. The incident caused an uproar.
Activists printed stickers of the Twitter remark and plastered them around Hamburg, forcing the police to clean them up. Then activists painted a mural with the phrase, forcing the police to paint it over more than once.
The case, which quickly gained the moniker Pimmelgate (“Penisgate”) made national headlines. It raised concerns that illegal speech was too vaguely defined and gave local prosecutors and the police too much discretion about enforcement.
Not long after the incident, Alexander Mai, a 26-year-old climate activist who lives in the Bavarian city of Augsburg, got into a Facebook argument with a local far-right politician named Andreas Jurca. In response to a message by Mr. Jurca criticizing Muslims, Mr. Mai posted a link to a picture of the mural.
Several weeks later, four police officers pounded on Mr. Mai’s door at 6 a.m. with a warrant to confiscate his electronics. Mr. Jurca had filed a police report claiming the link to the photo was an insult.
The police spent over an hour rummaging through his drawers and belongings before leaving with several laptops and phones. Mr. Mai said he believed the raid was politically motivated because of his climate activism. He is working with a lawyer to fight charges of making a public insult.
“They were not here because I’m suspected of murdering someone,” Mr. Mai said in an interview. “I was just suspected of insulting someone online.”
Several internet speech-related cases are now winding their way through the German legal system. The outcomes have the potential to create a new area of case law about what can and cannot be said online, potentially diminishing the role of internet companies as the main arbiters of online speech by moving more to the courts.
Germany’s experience is being closely watched in other countries like Britain and France, where policymakers want to more tightly regulate internet speech, but have wavered about how to find the right balance with free expression.
In June, in the town of Kassel in central Germany, a 49-year-old man was on trial for comments made on Facebook that said Mr. Lübcke, the politician murdered in 2019, had “himself to blame.”
Dirk B., the defendant whose full name is being withheld because of Germany’s strict privacy laws, told a judge that the comments were taken out of context. His Facebook post, he said, had been about Mr. Lübcke’s refusal of police protection and that he had, in the same comments, expressed condolences for Mr. Lübcke’s family.
“This falls under the freedom of expression in our free democratic state,” the defendant said. He added that he would post the same thing again.
The judge disagreed. At the end of the two-hour hearing, she said he had effectively condoned Mr. Lübcke’s murder. He was ordered to pay a fine of €2,400.
Paula Haase contributed reporting from Kassel, Germany.