In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, business IT specialist and former German Green candidate, Laura Sophie Dornheim, spoke about her quest against online hate, her own experience with it, as well as “crowbar” women’s quotas in the tech sector and politics.
Laura Sophie Dornheim has a degree in business informatics and a doctorate in gender studies. She was a Green candidate for the Bundestag in 2017, and besides being the head of communications at the Adblock company eyeo GmbH, she also volunteers with the Greens/Bündnis 90.
Ms Dornheim, when did you decide to get involved in network policy?
I was fascinated by technology from an early age, and went online and built my websites early on. I quickly realised that this topic was becoming increasingly crucial for our society and politics should tackle such issues accordingly.
Being a woman in technical spheres, one has to be very blind not to have the gender issue on one’s radar at all times. I soon realised how important it is for these tech topics to not only be covered by men. So I had both conviction and professional background.
As a woman in tech, did you personally experience discrimination?
Yes, there always was. My dad was a craftsman, so it was natural for me to be in a workshop as a girl, but I was consistently being taught that it was not normal.
In kindergarten, I had to justify why I wanted built things. My teacher explained to me that women were simply not good at science. During my studies, people asked me several times if I was lost when I was at the computer science building.
Politics is trying desperately to get more women into technical universities…
…but by then it’s too late. They put you in drawers as a kid. Girls get dolls, boys get stuff to fiddle with. They have a different kind of experience later on.
So it’s about socialisation, not about innate differences in interests?
The “Nature vs. Nurture” debate is a sham debate. There is certainly an innate part, but it is small. The influence of socialisation can be proven.
Would it be for politicians to intervene in this case? Could they issue state bans?
Prohibitions can be very useful in principle, but in the case of such cultural phenomena, they can only get you so far. A few small things could nevertheless be done: we have a huge backlog in education, where stereotypes are perpetuated. But cultural aspects are difficult to change through laws, even if it is sometimes frustrating.
Are you still in favour of a quota for women?
Yes. It’s a crowbar, but it works. That’s how female role models are created, as this is the way to change culture and thinking. This also applies to politics: men mainly write internet regulation.
Does that create problems for equality online?
Yes, for example, in the case of hatred and threats.
Unaffected men have a limited perspective in this case because many things are simply not imaginable if one hasn’t experienced it oneself.
I once read out such hate comments during a lecture and often received the following feedback from men: “Wow, we did not know it was that bad”.
There is a difference between reading stupid comments and being threatened anonymously for an hour. If more women would make network policies, it would make a huge difference.
How high is the risk that such verbal violence ends up being physical?
It would be the task of the relevant ministries to put this into figures. But it can definitely be said that the risk is real. This starts with data protection. In Germany, it is possible to go to the registration office and obtain someone’s address. All you have to do is provide two details, such as name and marital status.
Last year, I was attacked online by a mob. At first, it was only on Twitter but packages then arrived at my home. And the threat was clear: “I know where you live”.
Did you go to the police?
I filed a complaint but never heard back. As the lawyer, Christina Clemm, said: “We have appropriate laws for such cases. They are just not applied.” There is the possibility to block information regarding one’s address but all women I know who applied for this were unsuccessful. I only know of two successful cases, both men, one very prominent.
Too often, the authorities would still say: “As long as there is no physical violence it’s not that bad” or “It’s only the internet, you can turn it off”.
According to a study by Andreas Kick, women are more often victims of online violence than men. Why?
Unfortunately, I think it is a logical consequence. After all, we are still a patriarchal society in which women are considered weaker. So if I’m the strongest, I can attack more easily. This is unfortunately reinforced by technical possibilities which make it easy to coordinate wave-like Internet attacks.
Now there is a consensus in principle in politics that online hatred is reprehensible. So why can we not find a solution?
A big problem is that the figures are lacking. There are no statistics on hate crimes against women online. That would be a task for the family and women’s affairs ministry, but I don’t see anything happening.
Moreover, the police and the public prosecutor’s office either do not take these cases seriously or do not have the resources and know-how to deal with them.
The few convictions for hate comments had a significant deterrent effect. But for the most part, the message is that you can do whatever you want online, even when you use your own name.
In other words, the requirement to have one’s real name online as opposed to a pseudonym, as called for by Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, would not be an effective remedy?
No, that is an absolute shot in the dark.
Perpetrators usually already act under their own names, and activists concerned are conversely dependent on posting anonymously in order not to become targets – as already mentioned, addresses at the registration office are easy to obtain by name.
The obligation to use real names is an idea of people who do not understand the internet.
What would you consider to be effective measures?
As I said, more women in network policy, collecting figures, applying existing laws such as the information ban, as well as more resources for authorities.
At the legal level, there is another problem: in the case of digital threats, proceedings are often dropped because there is supposedly no public interest. But these are public comments that everyone sees.
And what signal does that send to a 16-year-old girl sitting in a village and thinking about becoming politically active? It discourages her from expressing herself online.
Because they fear physical violence if their addresses are found out?
Yes, but verbal violence is also violence. It has consequences for individuals but also for our democracy.
It’s almost crazy that different standards apply to this than to physical violence.