Users of online forums in Austria may be required to provide operators with a “digital identity card”
In a move intended to reduce hate speech and the spread of so-called “fake news” on the internet, the Austrian government has announced a proposal to largely eliminate anonymity in on-line forums. As of 2020, Austrians will no longer be able to post or comment under a false identity on established sites with significant reach.
According to the draft by the Austrian Communications Authority (KommAustria), the rules apply to a specific profile of platforms that have either more than 100,000 registered users, earn more than €500,000 in annual revenues or receive government press subsidies of more than €50,000 a year. Monetary penalties of up to €500,000 will be applied on web platforms that fail to conform to the law.
Initially, the Austrian government intended to push regulations inspired by the German Network Enforcement Act, which aimed at combating “fake news” on social networks. Unlike the German law, which was constructed to be reactive – addressing violations after they occur – the Austrian law is proactive – a preventative measure aimed at hate speech, said Media Minister Gernot Blümel (ÖVP) in a press conference (April 10): “The legal requirements that are valid in the analog world must also be valid in the digital world.” This position reflects the traditions in the print and broadcast media, in some cases backed by law, that opinion pieces, letters to the editor, podcasts and the like, must be signed and confirmed by the editorial staff. In these settings, the editors play a curatorial role, weeding out of contributions that do not meet the publication’s standards of respectful and ethical discourse.
Critics see the move as a step toward censorship aimed at a small number of Austrian websites with discussion forums, limiting freedom of speech. IT lawyer Markus Dörfler argues that “in the real world, I don’t demand to see an ID as a precautionary measure.”
The law may also contradict the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which allows limitations on the freedom of expression only when ‘necessary in a democratic society’. The pending law may also counter laws on the right to privacy and the protection of personal data.
Former Green Party MP Sigrid Maurer is among the proposal’s critics. The 34-year-old activist recently sparked debate over online hate speech in a fight against sexual harassment on Facebook. Maurer’s case was mentioned by government representatives as evidence of the need for the law. Maurer objected: “The government abused my case to propose this censorship law. Not in my name,” she tweeted.
According to reports by the daily Der Standard, right-wing sites promoting hate speech such as unzensuriert.at (linked to FPÖ) will be exempted as below the thresholds, while others, such as the Neo-Nazi site Alpen-Donau.info will most likely relocate out of Austria to avoid the new law’s consequences. In defense of the size exemptions, Blümel said these were designed to reduce the burden on small platforms and startups.
The government’s ambitious proposal faces legal obstacles, and some, like technology law expert Lukas Feiler, argue its implementation is unlikely, as the European Commission will see it as inconsistent with existing EU law.