Online Anonymity Is Increasingly Under Threat in Europe

October 23, 2019, 9:45 AM UTC

The shooting outside a synagogue in Halle, Germany earlier this month didn’t just mark the disturbing return of lethal anti-Semitism to the country—it also demonstrated the spread of white-supremacist tactics seen in Christchurch, New Zealand back in March.

As in the Christchurch mosque murders, the Halle attack was livestreamed online, with the video eventually being removed by the platform operator (Amazon’s Twitch gaming service in this case) but not before it was disseminated elsewhere. In both cases, online radicalization is thought to have played a part in leading the killers to kill.

How to combat this scourge? According to some leading German politicians, part of the answer lies in whipping away the masks of those who plot and spread hate online—which in effect means removing online anonymity as an option for everyone.

Germany is not alone in this effort, however, as countries across Europe look for ways to combat online hate—and raise concerns among civil society activists in the process. 

Real names

At the end of last week, state-level security ministers from the German Social Democratic Party (the junior member of a federal coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union) revealed a push for forcing online platforms to verify the identity of their users. They said the collected data should include real names, even if the users still get to use pseudonyms on the platforms.

Prominent Christian Democrats have also proposed a mandate for real names. “I want to know who’s behind those comments,” said party chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (seen by many as Merkel’s heir-in-waiting) in June.

The German federal justice minister, the SPD’s Christine Lambrecht, is less keen on the idea. Last week, she said real-names policies were fallible, and expressed a preference for ensuring that users’ IP addresses—identifying their Internet connections—were recorded.

However, Germany is not the only country in Europe where proposed new rules threaten online anonymity. A far more advanced plan is underway in Austria—though it has hit a hitch.

Kurz’s Plan

In April, inspired by a case involving the online sexual harassment of a Green politician, the conservative Austrian government proposed a law forcing platform operators to register users’ names and physical addresses before allowing them to comment online.

The proposal sparked outrage, with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe warning that it threatened media freedom and freedom of expression.

Then the government collapsed, brought down when a scandal about Russian oligarchs hit the junior coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party. Elections took place in September and the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz of the center-right Austrian People’s Party, is currently trying to build a new coalition.

What happens next largely depends on whom Kurz finds to prop up his government.

“In case it is the same coalition, we would indeed expect the law to be tabled again and to proceed swiftly,” said Maximilian Schubert, the secretary-general of the Internet Service Providers Austria—a trade body whose members include the likes of Facebook and Google. “But even then, we received signals from the Freedom Party that they would head for a far less intrusive approach. In coalition with the Greens, it is relatively unlikely that the draft would proceed in its current state.”

“We are pretty sure that Mr. Kurz will bring up the law again as soon as the new coalition (whichever that might be) stands,” said Iwona Laub, communication manager at the Austrian digital rights association Laub said the law seemed “very important” to the chancellor.

Kurz’s party had not responded to Fortune‘s request for comment at the time of publication.

“Online Harms”

Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, online anonymity may also soon be challenged.

In April, the British government released its so-called “online harms” white paper—a set of proposals for ensuring online safety. Among other measures, the document proposed working with law enforcement “to review whether the current powers [for identifying social media users] are sufficient to tackle anonymous abuse online.”

It also talked about forcing platforms to take “steps to limit anonymized users abusing their services, including harassing others.”

The consultation on the white paper lasted a few months and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—the relevant part of the U.K. government—is still going through the responses. Nonetheless, the government said in its legislative agenda earlier this month that it intends to push on with legislation.

“We want to keep people safe online, but we want to do this in a proportionate way, ensuring that freedom of expression is upheld and promoted online, and businesses do not face undue burdens,” the government said at the time.

The British government’s final proposals remain a mystery —and, thanks to the Brexit crisis, the U.K. may soon have a new government anyway—but the mere possibility of demanding real names was enough to generate concern among experts.

Does it work?

“It is important to raise a strong, cautionary note against the idea that requiring ‘real names’ would be an effective tool against online abuse,” Paul Bernal, an associate law professor at the University of East Anglia, wrote in his response to the government’s proposals. “In practice, there is little evidence so suggest that it might be, and significant evidence that it would not—and that it would put vulnerable people in particular situations at risk.”

Similar concerns are shared among civil society activists regarding the Austrian moves against anonymity.

“A lot of the stuff that’s out there is actually posted under real names—right-wing extremists posting racist content, people harassing other people,” said Jan Penfrat, a senior policy advisor at the Brussels-based European Digital Rights (EDRi). “Prohibiting nicknames or making everybody show their names will not prevent these kinds of content being posted.”

One country has already tried banning online anonymity—and given up. That country is South Korea, which in 2007 decided the move was necessary for combatting online libel, false rumors and abuse.

Five years later, the South Korean Constitutional Court scrapped the law, saying it did not respect people’s right to free speech. The court also noted there was no evidence that the law, which applied to nearly 150 large online services, actually stemmed the flow of libel and disinformation.

It is possible that anti-anonymity rules could help some investigations, EDRi’s Penfrat conceded. However, he added: “I can’t see how these law enforcement requirements can ever outweigh the enormous risks of collecting even more personal data about everybody in the country.”

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