Austria’s online hate speech law prompts question marks about ‘overblocking’

At the presentation of the initiative, from left to right: Integration and Women's Minister Susanne Raab (ÖVP), EU and Constitutional Minister Karoline Edtstadler (ÖVP), Justice Minister Alma Zadić (Greens) and Sigrid Maurer, head of the Green parliamentary group. [EPA-EFE | Andy Wenzel]

In the fight against illegal online content, the Austrian government wants to make platforms more accountable. Many details are still missing, but the German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) seems to be a model. Critics fear over-blocking and collateral damage but also see opportunities. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Vienna does not want to wait for Brussels in the fight against hate online. A few months before the Commission is due to present its proposal for a Digital Services Act (DSA) in autumn, in which online platforms are to be regulated, the Austrian government wants to draft its own law.

Online platforms will thus be obliged to delete illegal content within a certain period. In addition, all companies concerned are to appoint their own authorised representatives to ensure that a central person can receive complaints and sanctions.

The law is to be examined as early as next week and was sent as a draft to the Green coalition partner on Thursday (23 July), a spokesperson for Constitutional Minister Karoline Edtstadler (ÖVP), who is working on the law together with Justice Minister Alma Zadić (Greens), confirmed to EURACTIV Germany.

A law is being pushed through in great haste and “with a hot needle,” said Thomas Lohninger, head of the network policy NGO ‘epicenter.works’ in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.

Lohninger does not oppose legal regulation of platform content moderation in principle, and says that online hate speech is an urgent problem and that the creation of authorised representatives is a positive development.

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Platforms as deputy sheriffs

Many details about the Austrian law are still missing, but what is already known is giving Lohninger a “stomach ache.” In the worst-case scenario, he sees two threats: Overblocking and excessive stress for small businesses.

The Austrian law is based on Germany’s NetzDG. Users notice potentially illegal content, report it, and platforms must then decide whether it is “obviously illegal” – in which case it must be deleted within 24 hours of reporting.

The NetzDG does not redefine what is illegal and what is not, it only aims at better enforcement of existing law, as the name suggests.

However, the companies themselves decide within the deadlines whether content is illegal or not. Courts can only check afterwards whether the platform has acted illegally. This is due to the sheer volume of content. This is probably how the Austrian law will be implemented, Lohninger suspects.

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SPÖ digital expert: Clearly against the Austrian NetzDG

Fearing high fines, platforms prefer to delete too much rather than too little content, prompting concerns about freedom of speech.

Both Lohninger and SPÖ digital policy spokeswoman Katharina Kucharowits fear that the same thing is now threatening Austria.

For Lohninger, it remains to be seen whether the Austrian government is setting the right incentives. However, the German experience makes him pessimistic.

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Germany’s Network Implementation Act, NetzDG for short, is now even stricter. Social networks must not only delete potentially criminal content but also report it to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). However, some data of online posters will have to be forwarded to the authorities. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Criteria still unclear

Lohninger’s second major concern does not stem from a similarity with the NetzDG, but rather a fundamental difference. While the German regulation only targets social media, the Austrian government apparently plans to make all platforms with user-generated content subject to it. The number of users, for example, is being considered as a criterion.

This means that news forums, for example, or Wikipedia – everything Lohninger calls the “join-in Internet” – would also be covered by the regulation. Such platforms would have to massively increase their moderation departments to delete reported content within the deadlines. This would be unmanageable for many of these companies and could lead to closures, he fears.

Lohninger therefore recommends a turnover threshold, for example of €750 million per year. This would guarantee that only those companies that can afford such intensive moderation would fall under the law.

Another open question for Lohninger and Kucharowits concerns the introduction by law of a possible obligation to use a clear name in their user profile. A spokesperson for Minister Edtstadler told EURACTIV’s that there would be no such obligation.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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