Merkel suggests changes could be made to new online hate speech law

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck present a new 2 Euro commemorative coin which bears former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Berlin, Germany, February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Mang

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled on Saturday that she was prepared to consider changes to a widely criticized new law that aims to rid social media of hate speech.

The legislation, which came into force on Jan. 1, can impose fines of up to 50 million euros ($60.1 million) on sites that fail to remove hate speech promptly, sparking concerns that Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms could block more content than necessary.

“Of course we’re now looking at what consequences this law has and what happens, and we’ll definitely evaluate it too,” Merkel said in her weekly video podcast.

“It might be the case that we need to make changes to it but the basic approach that we need rules is absolutely right and necessary,” she said, without giving further details.

Germany has some of the world’s toughest laws covering defamation, public incitement to commit crimes and threats of violence, with prison sentences for Holocaust denial or inciting hatred against minorities. But few online cases are prosecuted.

Merkel said the internet was not a legal vacuum and the new law ensured that platform operators were responsible for the content that they disseminated.

Opposition parties have condemned the law, saying it was wrong for private companies to be making decisions about whether posts are unlawful.

Top-selling Bild newspaper has also called for it to be scrapped, saying it was stifling free speech and making martyrs out of anti-immigrant politicians whose posts are deleted.

Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Andrew Bolton