This article is an editorial written by Ifrågasätt’s Head of Communications, Johan Folin.
On April 10 the Austrian Federal Government put forward a proposal regarding identification of users of online social forums. Gernot Blümel, minister within the Federal Chancellery for the EU, Arts, Culture and Media, motivated the proposal saying that “[t]he legal requirements that are valid in the analog world must also be valid in the digital world”.
It is easy to understand why this proposal has been made. Acts of hate, cyberbullying and defamation are frequent online. They are not only annoying and hurtful; they are often crimes. And as such, the Austrian government wants to do something about it. This is something. But it should not be done.
I work for Ifrågasätt, a Swedish IT/Media company focused on reader engagement and loyalty for, primarily, online newspapers and magazines. Our most wide-spread product is a commenting service used by some of the Nordics’ largest newspapers. Among them are Sweden’s largest daily Dagens Nyheter; the largest business newspaper in the Nordic countries, Dagens industri; and the largest regional newspaper in Sweden, Göteborgs-Posten.Ifrågasätt is a one-stop-shop for our partners, and Ifrågasätt does everything from developing, maintenance and moderation for them. Our solution gives the readers an opportunity to interact with each other and with journalists and other writers, and also increases reading time and the number of returning visitors. That is why we have quickly gained traction with serious publishers who want to connect with their readers.
One of the components of the commenting service is identification of our users. People can use an alias when commenting, but they register using their real name. Ifrågasätt is therefore already (mostly, anyway) compliant with the intentions of the Austrian proposal. Shouldn’t we welcome it? No, we shouldn’t. There is a huge difference between a law and a business solution. At Ifrågasätt we analysed the problems with cyberbullying and hate speech and came to the conclusion that using real names in our registration process would encourage people to behave better than they otherwise would. It also means, even though we only hand over information to the police (and only the police) when a crime is being investigated, that some people will not feel comfortable creating an account with us. Furthermore, our method helps us weed out bots and trolls, making our platform a nicer place for our users to interact with other – real – users. This is a business decision made to try and balance our customers’ (primarily newspapers and magazines) and our users’ interests.
If our users are confident that we follow our own policies and our customers are satisfied with the quality of the comments on our platform, then we have succeeded. But the important part here is that these are all voluntary decisions. Each newspaper or magazine decides if they want to use our solution and create an arena for their readers to debate on, and each reader decides if they want to create an account and debate using their real name. If the newspaper decides on a different solution, or if a potential user decides to spend their time on a different forum, they always have that as an alternative. Unless mandatory ID checks of forum users are signed into law. We believe media companies want to take responsibility for the debate climate on their websites, at least since not doing it damages their brands in the end. That is one of the reasons why most newspapers shut down their commenting sections a couple of years ago, and it is one of the reasons why newspapers are leaving Facebook. Publishers want debate and discussion, but they need the right tools for it.
There are also questions regarding compliance with the EU E-commerce directive if the proposal is adopted. Is the proposal a too large limitation on the legal protection on freedom of expression? Is the proposal infringing on the regulations and freedoms of the EU inner market?
Even if the proposal is compliant with EU regulations and the government has decided that Austrian citizens should not be able to be anonymous when they discuss things online, there are still more issues. If an Austrian IT company launches a web service aimed at both Austrian citizens and foreigners, how should the rules be applied? Will the Austrian IT company be held accountable if they have not identified every user, regardless of their nationality and the possibilities for a private – foreign – company to do so?
And vice versa, how will the rules apply to a foreign company that either is or is not targeting Austrian citizens? Will the Austrian government try to enforce the law against a German company that is focused on the German market, but just happens to have more than 100,000 (which is one of the proposed thresholds for the application of the law) Austrian users? If Austria wants to participate in the European or global markets, it should be wary of adopting laws that make the possibilities of creating services for Austrian citizens uncertain and difficult for both Austrian and foreign companies. Furthermore, the proposed law can shut out working solutions to problems with hate speech etc. that do not fulfil the requirements of the law. Our solution will, or will with some adaptions, meet the requirements stipulated in the proposal, but there might other well-functioning solutions that won’t.
The appraisal period lasts until May 23. I hope that the assessment after the consideration of expert opinions and those of the interested parties will be that this proposal should not be adopted.