How are whistleblowers perceived in different countries? Does digitisation lead to surveillance capitalism? Are blogs and social media a catalyst for democratic change in authoritarian states? What does Europe have to say about how cyber conflicts should be tackled? In the lead-up to the re:publica conference and under our Finding Europe heading, we will put out a bi-weekly review of key debates on these and other issues in cooperation with our media partner euro|topics, with voices from the press and websites of Europe. Our sixth, and last, contrubtion explores how European media deals with anonymity on the Internet.
Hatred, harassment and strikes below the belt are rife on the Internet. Under the protective cloak of anonymity, users vent their rage in online comments. Would a ban on anonymity improve the way people treat each other on the web or would it curtail freedom of expression?
This was something the journalists of the Estonian news portal Delfi hadn't reckoned with when they wrote an article about shipping entrepreneur Vjatšeslav Leedos: the news that icebreakers were to free the transit route for Leedos' ships in the winter angered countless readers to such an extent that they gave free rein to their rage in the website's comment section. They blamed Leedos for the fact that they could no longer cross the ice in their cars and targeted him with personal insults. Leedos reacted by filing an action for damages against Delfi. The case went through all the instances of Estonia's judicial system and all the courts agreed with the businessman. But the web portal wasn't willing to accept responsibility for the anonymous hate-filled comments of its readers. It saw this as a violation of the right to freedom of expression and lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against the state of Estonia. The ruling is expected by the end of the year.
The Leedos affair has triggered a debate about nothing less than the future of the Internet, writes Delfi's chief editor Urmo Soonvald with conviction: "It's about whether and how portals should deal with their users' comments, and whether the moderating of comment sections is necessary. In her summation Delfi's lawyer confronted the judges with the question: What kind of Internet do we want to leave to the next generation?"
Social networks as a modern-day plague
Will Delfi continue to allow anonymous comments if the judges rule against the media company? Or will it force its readers to use their real names? Proponents of anonymity on the web see it as a necessary right that allows everyone to freely express their opinion without facing negative consequences. Others are unanimous that offensive and abusive comments would disappear if everyone had to show their face.
Turkish columnist Engin Ardiç agrees with this view. Ardiç is currently under investigation for allegedly insulting a journalist known for his anti-government views on Twitter. He denies the accusations, saying that unidentified parties opened the Twitter account using his name. In the pro-government daily Sabah he rails: "Social networks have become the plague of our times. They are waste bins into which mentally ill individuals with twisted brains spew their mental rubbish. Disguised and masked, pitiful sociopaths who are loath to publish anything under their own names can spread whatever is on the tip of their tongues here."
You can't ban stupidity
A group of MPs in the UK formulates the problem slightly less bitterly, but is nonetheless campaigning against anonymous slander and hateful comments on the Internet. The MPs want authors of such comments to be banned from social networks. The British daily The Independent, however, questions the wisdom of such a plan: "The uncomfortable truth is that in Britain it’s not against any law to be so stupid, cruel and misguided to think 'Hitler was right', or 'It’s not rape if she’s drunk'. It’s not the police’s job to make these people gentler, kinder more empathetic folk with hobbies more rewarding than sitting indoors spewing hate. That was, at one point, their parents’ job and they failed miserably, so now it’s down to the idiot to take a look in the mirror and wonder why they feel so continuously awful."
In Sweden, the television channel TV3 decided to turn the tables and tracked down the identities of anonymous commentators who had written racist comments. The TV team then exposed them with the camera running. In the aftermath the commentators received death threats. The daily newspaper Göteborgs Posten criticises the project, saying it backfired: "The goal of the project was solely to put the Internet racists in the pillory. And the result is mainly bitterness. Now, far-right websites are celebrating this, cheering: hatred against hatred. That's precisely what the far right wants: a divided society."
Slanderous comments made to order
Meanwhile Romania's politicians have developed their own unique approach to online comments. Over a period of several years, Romanian parties paid people to denigrate their political opponents online. "These invisible entities are either students who want to earn a bit of extra cash, young 'politicians in training' or impoverished officials and pensioners who would do anything for money. All the parties have recruited and built up their own teams of reliable hack writers to rush in and rescue them and their party leaders like a rapid deployment force," web portal Gândul explains.
The Estonian portal Delfi briefly suspended its campaign for freedom of expression in comment sections in March. Its own comment section was closed down for an entire weekend because an article about the right-wing People's Party of Estonia drew a flood of neo-Nazi comments.
Twenty-six foreign correspondents follow the key debates in Europe and comb through the commentary pages of influential media for the euro|topics international online press review. All the selected opinion pieces are available in German, English and French. The eurotopics press review has been contributing to the formation of a European public sphere since 2005, and has a constantly growing archive of more than 30,000 commentaries. An index of roughly 500 newspapers, online portals and blogs provides broad access to Europe’s media landscape. The journalists’ network n-ost has been producing the daily press review on behalf of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education since 2008.
For more information see www.eurotopics.net and @eurotopics.