Austrian Government Wants To Outlaw Online Anonymity

Free Speech

from the it's-just-going-to-hurt-those-most-in-need-of-protection dept

In response to who knows what -- maybe just a desire to make it easier for the government to track/investigate internet users -- the Austrian government wants to eliminate online anonymity in its country by 2020. The proposed law says pseudonyms are still allowed, but they'll be linked to accounts that require users to provide site operators with a ton of personal information.

Those in Austria wishing to post a comment on the internet in the future will no longer be able to do so anonymously. According to the Government's new draft law on "Diligence and Responsibility on the Web," users want to provide their first name, last name and address to platform operators. In the event of an investigation, operators would have to provide information to government agencies or, in some cases, to private persons in cases of insult or defamation.

How this will be accomplished is anyone's guess. One theory is this will rely on two-factor authentication linking users' accounts to their phones. In Austria, the purchase of a phone or SIM card requires the purchaser to turn all of this information over to the retailer. More security but less privacy, I guess.

This law would apply to any site that has more than 100,000 registered users or exceeds 500,000 euros in annual revenue. Good thing there's that much revenue involved, considering violators could be hit with 500,000 euro fines, which rise to one million if there are repeated violations.

The deployment and enforcement logistics are only part of the problem. The other hurdle the proposal faces is being upheld by the European Commission, which may take a dim view of a law that does so little to protect the privacy of internet users.

Tech law expert Lukas Feiler from the Baker McKenzie law firm believes that the draft law is a violation of the EU e-commerce directive. Feiler recently told STANDARD that service providers on the web only have to the laws of the country in which they are located. As such, Austria may not impose laws that are stricter than those in an operator's country of origin.

The law also imposes more costs on site operators, requiring sites to staff a liaison position -- one that must be receptive to government requests 24/7. This includes sites not located in Austria but which have enough registered users -- or earn enough revenue from Austrian users -- to be subject to the law's coverage. There likely will have to be additional compliance personnel hired to ensure the law is being followed and vet info provided by users registering for accounts.

And to what end? The proposal's backers suggest the single beneficiary of this proposed law will be the Austrian government, which will find it much easier to unmask internet users for purposes of law enforcement. The public receives no benefit, unless making it easier to engage in defamation lawsuits can be considered a net benefit for the public at large.

Opponents of the law see it for what it is: an attack on the free and open exchange of ideas under the protection of anonymity. This law will hit the most marginalized members of Austria hardest and make it prohibitively expensive for local sites to continue to do business in the country. There's no societal good being proposed here, just a way to give the government a bit more control of the greatest communication tool ever invented.

Filed Under: anonymity, austria, free speech, online anonymity, privacy, security

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