Last week, the Austrian government released plans to eliminate internet anonymity. Austrian users will now have to provide operators with their true identities or they might be fined in millions. This means that users from Austria can’t comment or post anonymously now. The law will get in force from 2020.
Users will now have to provide their first name, last name and address to platform operators, as per the government’s new draft law on Diligence and Responsibility on the Web. The operators will have to supply that information to government agencies or, in some cases, to private people in cases of insult or defamation for investigation purpose.
Media Minister Gernot Blümel, of the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), said at a press conference, “The legal requirements that are valid in the analog world must also be valid in the digital world. That is why there is now an abundance of resolutions to make the correction.” He further added, “The so-called digital anonymity ban is an additional step in that direction.”
This law is applicable to platforms that either have more than 100,000 registered users; or who earn more than 500,000 euros in annual revenues; or the ones that receive government press subsidies of more than 50,000 euros. Per the draft law, the platforms would also have a responsibility to determine if the ID information provided by users is accurate. The process of how these platforms choose to do so is up to them. Though the draft law does mention the use of dual-factor authentication by way of the user’s mobile number.
All the SIM cards in Austria need to be registered with a photo ID by the beginning of the next year. Even the web platforms who would be responsible for making information about the platform are required to appoint a liaison in Austria. If the regulation is not followed, then the person will be fined up to 100,000 euros.
The fines could even reach as high as 500,000 euros to a million euros depending upon the severity of the violation. The Austrian Communications Authority also known as KommAustria is responsible for enforcement of the law. This law exempts e-commerce platforms as they are the platforms that earn no revenues from their content or from advertising.
Privacy and law experts condemn Austria’s new law
Most IT and privacy experts are against Austria’s internet anonymity law. Markus Dörfler, an IT lawyer says, “In the real world, I don’t demand to see an ID as a precautionary measure.”
He believes this step is towards the establishment of censorship and the law could limit the freedom of expression. He also thinks that this law would work against the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), according to which any limitations on the freedom of expression can only be made if they are “necessary in a democratic society.”
According to him, it is unlikely that most of the foreign social media platforms will appoint a liaison in Austria and if the law will be applied to them. He further adds, “No Chinese network is going to start checking the identities of its users in order to comply with the law.”
Dörfler is also unclear about whether the law is in parallel with the 2016 ruling by the European Court of Justice on data retention because as per the ruling, “general and indiscriminate retention of data is not allowed.” It also invades the right to privacy and the protection of personal data.
Nikolaus Forgó, tech law expert also adds his views saying, “This path won’t even come close to achieving the goal of internet discipline.” He further adds that the law will lead to high costs such as paying the liaison which would damage Austria’s “already weak” digital infrastructure. Also, it would be difficult to protect such a large amount of data which will give rise to data protection concerns. The platform operators will get this huge amount of data in their hands which could be risky.
According to tech law expert, Lukas Feiler from the law firm Baker McKenzie, the draft law is a violation of the EU’s e-commerce directive. Feiler said, “The e-commerce directive protects the freedom to provide services for online platforms.”
According to Mario Lindner, a diversity spokesman for the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), “the draft law overshoots its target.” Linder further added, “What the government has presented is not a solution to the challenges that are facing us in the digital space.”
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