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According to CNBC, Angela Merkel (via her chief spokesman) criticized Donald Trump's ban on Twitter.

“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, told reporters in Berlin on Monday, according to Reuters.

“Given that, the chancellor considers it problematic that the president’s accounts have been permanently suspended.”

The same article mentions that this is quite surprising due to not so good relations between Donald Trump and Angela Merkel:

Her apparent alignment with the president against the decision by Twitter to remove him comes as a surprise. The German leader, who doesn’t herself have a Twitter account, has often clashed with Trump over the years, while diplomatic relations between Washington and Berlin have been on the wane.

Also, the decision to ban Donald Trump seems to be more related to breaking the platforms' terms and conditions rather than an arbitrary limitation of freedom of speech.

Why criticize this?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – CDJB Jan 13 at 22:41
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    This probably doesn't qualify an answer, but for some context, the EU has been fairly recently discussing legislation that would limit the "gatekeeping" ability of big on-line [typically US] firms. Tweeter would almost certainly qualify as a "gatekeeper". euractiv.com/section/digital/news/… And now the Commission has also echoed Merkel's concerns in re Twitter-Trump dispute euractiv.com/section/digital/news/… – Fizz Jan 14 at 12:07
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    I don't understand the question. The explanation is already given in the OP: Angela Merkel thinks "The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance". – Allure Jan 14 at 23:13
  • @Allure I wanted a more in-depth explanation about this, as politicians have more reasons for saying or doing something for more than the sake of some principles. Already provided answers confirmed my expectations and also shed some light on the political context difference between the US and Germany when it comes to the freedom of speech. – Alexei Jan 15 at 5:49
  • breaking the platforms' terms and conditions means nothing. – user2617804 Jan 16 at 11:00
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While Germany does promote free speech, same as the USA does, their free speech means something different:

False information is not an object worthy of protection from the viewpoint of freedom of opinion (54 BVerfGE 208, 219). The deliberate assertion of untrue facts is not protected by article 5, paragraph 1 of the Basic Law;

Merkel did not say Trump should be allowed to spread his messages - the kind of speech Trump disseminated on Twitter would have landed him in court many times in Germany. Instead, in Germany it's seen as problematic when a private company decides what speech is and is not deemed acceptable, because that's a matter to be fairly decided by laws and courts*. Twitter is an international company that does have a presence in Germany, so I interpret Merkel's statement as "don't try to pull that kind of stuff over here".


*Reality is more complicated and counter-examples do exist. Yet in general in Germany the state is far more aggressive in limiting offensive/dangerous speech, and also more protective of citizens' online rights.

**The controversial German Network Enforcement Act from 2017 (NetzDG) demonstrates the massive difference between the German and the US approach. It doesn't simply give private companies powers to decide what speech is and isn't acceptable, it legally requires private companies to make judgments about what speech is and isn't acceptable, provides regulation for how they must go about deletions, bans, and preservations of evidence, and demands transparent published rules. The private company still decides, but it's a power that is deputized to the company by the state, with limits, boundaries and oversight. Please don't ask me which approach is better, because I have no idea.

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    Interesting, it seems the primary issue was how the suspension was enacted (by a private company with no public oversight), rather than the fact that it was done at all. The end result of a Trump suspension might have been exactly the same under German rules, but it would have been enacted differently. – Nuclear Hoagie Jan 13 at 18:00
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    Culturally, in Germany there is much more distrust amongst the broad public towards big corporations that is somwhat comparable to how U.S. conservatives view the federal government. Therefore it is unsurprising that there are a great many people who are very uncomfortable with the amount of power the big media corporations have even though Trump is basically universally despised here. I mean, he was basically simultanously purged from every single media platform, which is something that should bother everyone, no matter the view on Trump. Merkel's view is somewhat reflective of that. – AuronTLG Jan 14 at 9:17
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    @AuronTLG For what it's worth, it's bothers a lot of us on the Western side of the pond, too, including many of us who oppose Trump. While, on one hand, it's nice for Trump's Twitter to be gone, a few people in San Francisco who are completely unaccountable to the public being able to place dramatic limits on free speech is concerning, particularly in regards to public figures and especially in light of the monopoly status of those companies. If they were not monopolies and someone could just go get essentially identical services from a competitor, then I wouldn't find it to be as problematic. – reirab Jan 16 at 16:16
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We can not read Angela Merkel's mind, so her true motives are pure speculation. However, the original article by Reuters which is named as a source in the CNBC article linked in the question expands more on her stated rationale for her position:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reservations about the way President Donald Trump’s Twitter account was suspended, her spokesman said, adding that legislators, not private companies, should decide on any necessary curbs to free expression.

The intervention by Steffen Seibert, her chief spokesman, reflects concern in Berlin and much of Europe at the power giant social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have to shape public discourse.

So in other words, her objections appear to not be because she suddenly likes Trump (just a couple days earlier she held him responsible for inciting the capitol riots by not conceding after losing the election to Joe Biden). Her concerns are that private companies become too powerful at controlling the public narrative.

Neither is she against limits to freedom of speech per se. She rather believes that the decision what speech to censor should be left to legislators instead of private companies.

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There's an international dimension here. While US commentators largely see this in a US domestic context (an American company deciding what to do about American problems), Merkel will be looking at it in an international context; the idea of an American company making decisions about what a European head of state can and can't say is much more worrying.

(We see this kind of thing all the time. The social media platforms, for example, implement America's rather prudish attitude to non-sexual nudity; Germans are much more relaxed about nakedness.)

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    Quite: while in Florence I put a photograph of Michelangelo's David on Facebook, the public copy which stands in the open air outside the Uffizi. It was blocked as obscene (greatly to the amusement of everyone I know). – RedSonja Jan 14 at 6:47
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    Incidentally, StackExchange too has content policies and processes that impose an American world view on its international user base; and the management seem extraordinarily oblivious to this fact. – Michael Kay Jan 14 at 8:57
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    @MichaelKay Yeah, the US-centrism of SE staff is something I have rather negatively experienced in the past as well. they seem to think their US values are universal and seem to be completely unaware of how different and big the world outside the US is. That is not a SE problem, though, its a common problem found with US citizens... – Polygnome Jan 14 at 14:22
  • I found her opinion rather unusual and couraged, especially in a situation where an instance of disinformation has become really harmful. Many German politicians and mainstream media indeed push strongly for arbitrary censorship by corporations, rather than extending the quite limited legal boundaries, which can also be challenged in courts. – Erik Hart Jan 14 at 15:17
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    Semi-related: In Austria there is currently a bit of discussion because Youtube deleted a video of a speach by a right-wing politician in parliament ((German language) newspaper article in derStandard) for spreading Covid19 misinformation. The decision itself is not very controversial (except by said politician and some of his supporters), but the power of international corporations to do so is watched with a certain wariness. – Hulk Jan 14 at 15:52
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As has been said, we cannot read minds. I would like to think that this was a personal conviction based on a famous saying, I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it

However, Merkel is a politician and politicians above all do what is expedient. In reality, this probably has more to do with decrying the untrammelled power of corporations than defending Trump's right to speak. Certainly it has absolutely nothing to do with defending Trump's position.

Trump's influence is temporary. The influence of giant corporations could be disastrous if not contained. It could supplant democracy.

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    I don't think Merkel thinks everyone should be allowed to say anything at all, otherwise she would have done something about Germany's laws that ban hate speech – Caleth Jan 13 at 19:16
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    My personal concern is not their political alignment but their lack of accountability. Amazon alone has a net worth of more than most countries. If Amazon decided to arm themselves and declare war they would be a force to be reckoned with. They also have over a million employees worldwide depending on them for a job. As it is they have enormous influence over the average person's life as well as an incredible amount of information on their customer base and everyone who uses Alexa. – chasly - supports Monica Jan 13 at 22:35
  • @chasly-supportsMonica no, Google or Apple would not be able to just go ahead and start an army. Even historical mega-corporations weren't able to do that, see this blog post. – JonathanReez Jan 15 at 23:15
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    @JonathanReez That suggestion was not entirely serious. The sort of war they could wage would be economic, and information based not weapons based. – chasly - supports Monica Jan 16 at 1:05
  • @JonathanReez VOC and East India Company ? Though they had a charter from their government. – Stefan Skoglund Jan 17 at 13:51
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She insists that limitations on free speech may only be based on law, not arbitrary decisions by companies. Unfortunately, there is no original speech from her, only her spokesperson (Seibert).

The CNBC article is heavily distorting, as if she was supporting Trump (she isn't).

In fact, many German authorities and mainstream media have strongly demanded and appreciated censorship on social media, far beyond the legal boundaries. While legal restrictions on topics like hate speech are controversial from a free speech position, they currently affect only a rather small part of the "undesirable" content. Most recent pushes for censorship have targeted "fake news" and "disinformation", as well as very loose definitions of "hate speech", which are not punishable by law.

Calls for this kind of censorship have increased, with wrong and delusional content becoming more common, influential and sometimes dangerous, such as health risks through anti-vaxxers, denial and downplaying of Covid-19, or calls to flout safety rules. Conspiracy beliefs like QAnon and their influence on the US election are currently a big topic.

Treating social media as "private space", where the owner can implement and enforce arbitrary "rules-of-house", is the easiest way of censorship, without passing laws or having sanctions checked by courts.

Currently, hate speech laws in Germany affect mostly gross insults and defamation, or calls for mass murder/genocide (§130 of penal code, "Volksverhetzung", hate mongering or sedition). A number of political penal laws exist on Nazi history, such as use of Nazi-era symbols (including gestures and phrases), Holocaust denial and glorification of Nazi leaders. They affect mostly fringe groups and can easily be avoided (or evaded).

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  • Yep, Merkel wants more regulations and restrictions on speech, not less. Governments absolutely hate the ability of the common folks to freely spread the views. Only difference is she wants a government bureaucrat to approve them rather than a Twitter bureaucrat. – JonathanReez Jan 15 at 23:16
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I'm often not a fan of metaphors but this came immediately to my mind:

In a country all major roads are toll roads owned by two or three large corporations. People depend on these roads to go places. Obviously they must obey the traffic rules of the state when they use these roads. The issue at hand is that the companies impose additional rules at will by which the users must abide, or else.

The problem is obvious: The roads are vital for the functioning of the country, to a degree that resemble a public service; but the drivers are at the mercy of the companies. They can boot users even if they have not violated the legal traffic rules (only company rules). Such an exclusion is an existential threat to the victims but there is no clear recourse, no established judicial oversight and so on. —

Now such an oligopoly is not uncommon; utility companies, cell and cable services, post offices, banks etc. often are in similar positions. What makes the conflict unusual and important is that it concerns the exchange of opinions in the public sphere. This marketplace of opinions has since day one been recognized as the core of a democratic political system, which is why it is heavily protected in all democratic countries.

Should Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos be the ones who regulate the public exchange of opinion (because I bet that it was their personal decision, in the end)? Merkel is not the only one feeling uneasy about that.

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  • This is a nice explanation, but the accuracy of "They can boot users even if they have not violated the traffic rules." is debatable, at least when it comes to Twitter: see this and this. – Alexei Jan 16 at 9:05
  • @Alexei the public rules, or laws (as opposed to the company rules discussed in the links you provided). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jan 16 at 9:53

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