September 4, 2020

Austrian platform law: Government should avoid errors made with NetzDG

Denis Charlet / AFP
Reporters Without Borders warns against a repetition of the mistakes made by the German federal government in the new Austrian bill to combat hate speech in social media and online platforms, which was presented yesterday in Vienna.

Following the controversial German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) and the "Loi Avia" in France, which was declared unconstitutional in June, it is the next attempt by an EU member state to force especially powerful platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to quickly delete illegal content. The key point of the package is that hate speech will be easier to punish in the future and affected users will be able to defend themselves quickly and with low thresholds.


"We welcome the initiative's objective of better protecting people in the digital space from hate speech. Media professionals are particularly exposed to this phenomenon. At the same time, despite some positive adjustments, the law pursues similarly problematic approaches as those already adopted in France and Germany and could also lead to restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press in these countries," says Rubina Möhring, President of Reporters without Borders (RSF) Austria. 


The package also includes a new platform responsibility for large online forums (excluding encyclopedias such as Wikipedia, trade portals and national media forums). In a fast-track procedure, those affected can obtain the deletion of insulting and reputation-damaging forum contributions. In future, platforms with more than 100,000 users and an annual turnover of more than 500,000 euros will have to provide a registration form to report criminal hate speech. The operators of the sites are then obliged to check reported violations within 24 hours (or seven days in ambiguous cases) and, if the law applies, to block them if necessary.


Worry about "Overblocking”

Reporters Without Borders welcomes the fact that the Austrian government has anticipated central points of criticism of the German NetzDG with regard to the protection of freedom of opinion and freedom of the press. To protect against possible "over-blocking", i.e. platforms carrying out too many and intransparent deletions due to inadequate specifications, the users concerned have a right to appeal. This is still being negotiated in Germany. In addition, those affected should be able to contact an independent complaints office. RSF has been emphasizing for some time now the necessity of not leaving the decision-making authority over the legality of content to companies alone. Users must be able to turn to independent bodies and, in the final instance, to appeal to the courts, so that fundamental freedoms are preserved in the digital public sphere.


"It is crucial that platforms will no longer be able to delete contributions without explanation. The right to freedom of information must be safeguarded," said Rubina Möhring. The existing Austrian Communications Platforms Act (KoPl-G) ultimately creates one-sided financial incentives for companies to delete contributions once too often in cases of doubt, because only systematic misconduct in removing illegal content leads to substantial fines, but not the deletion of contributions covered by the freedom of opinion.


Avoid repeating errors with NetzDG and its updates

Reporters Without Borders takes a positive view of the introduction of new transparency obligations for companies with regard to their handling of user reports. Science, politics and civil society are dependent on comparable and meaningful data from companies. The growing influence of AI-controlled content moderation must also be transparently traceable. Facebook and YouTube in particular are increasingly relying on the automated detection of illegal content and are accepting a possible increase in error rates.


Significant data protection issues remain, however, with regard to the obligation to store user data for better prosecution of illegal contributions. Corresponding proposals within the framework of the drafting of the German law to combat right-wing extremism and hate crime went in some cases much further than necessary and earned criticism from data protection activists and Reporters Without Borders. The Austrian government should therefore draw conclusions from the German debate and take up constructive suggestions, for example from the Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.


No waiting for Brussels

The European Commission published the draft already on Wednesday 2 September after the obligatory notification by the Austrian government. Work is also currently underway at European level on a fundamental reform of Internet regulation in the form of the Digital Services Act, which is intended to create a uniform set of rules for online platforms. However, it could take years before it is adopted and implemented in the member states. It remains to be seen how the European Commission will react to the renewed national solo effort. In the case of the French law, the Commission had sharply criticized the fragmentation of the digital single market. It now has up to three months to evaluate the national draft that has been presented.


International solution needed

In the view of Reporters Without Borders, an international set of rules that promotes democratic debate and diversity on the internet, while emphasizing the protection of information and press freedom, would be urgently needed to counteract the increasing censorship efforts in the digital space, as RSF is currently observing in Russia and Turkey, among other countries. In the last two years, numerous states issued extensive Internet laws with reference to the German NetzDG, partly with devastating consequences for the liberty of the press. In July, for example, the Turkish government used the German law as an excuse to increase pressure on international platforms, to grant state removal orders and to store user data locally to facilitate state access to it.


Austria is now ranked 18th in the World Press Freedom Index.