By The Nation
Austrian legislators are mulling tough measures to curtail online “hate speech” and bullying. Both the traditional media and social media could face the daunting task of verifying their visitors’ identities to make it easier for the authorities to track down violators of the law, and their numbers are reportedly growing. Germany and France already have such requirements in place.
Whether democracies or under authoritarian rule, countries have to find ways to deal with increasingly rampant abuse of online freedom. Austria’s right-wing government wants to force operators of major social and conventional media outlets to verify user identities. German legislation threatens the administrators of websites who fail to remove hate speech promptly a fine of up to 50 million euros. France has said regulators could be “embedded” within the Facebook matrix to more closely guard against abuses and apply countermeasures. That Facebook would allow such scrutiny was already unprecedented.
It has been reported that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have taken sweeping steps and accelerated the removal of online hate speech, but combating abuses can in fact generate abuses of another kind. Online anonymity is commonly blamed for offensive misuse of cyberspace freedom, becoming the usual target for crackdowns. This has created a dilemma for everyone concerned – the pros and cons of total transparency have to be carefully weighed.
There are plenty of good reasons to want to cover your online footprints. Rights activists often make their cases online anonymously because to do so openly would invite prosecution or at least harassment. Whistleblowers, who are essential in the fight against corporate and political corruption, absolutely need the anonymity. Journalists are increasingly required to communicate discreetly with political prisoners and activists under government surveillance. Even the fight against online abuses demands a reasonable degree of anonymity, the better to encourage tip-offs.
There is no denying that online abuse is a major problem. Regardless of the action taken, however, it won’t go away overnight, and in the meantime, letting politics provide solutions could complicate and even worsen the situation. Consider the use of crackdowns on anonymity to silence political dissent, for example.
Even in democratic countries, such crackdowns can play into the hands of the people in power who seek to cover up sins and maintain secrets. There are news stories that the mainstream media decline to cover but that are spreading like wildfire on social media such as YouTube, and we have online anonymity to thank for that. The worthiest debate in recent times has to do with the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York on 9/11, and it’s taking place entirely on the alternative media.
To limit online abuse requires patience, social awareness and appeals to the collective conscience. From a young age, children have to learn to be respectful online and know the difference between freedom of expression and bullying. Sometimes the line between good and bad is blurred when it comes to what action we should take online. But that could be the best reason why tackling abuses should not be the responsibility of politicians.