“We defend fundamental and human rights by legal means.” – The Society for Civil Rights e.V. (“Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte e.V.” or “GFF”) has set themselves no less a goal. The non-profit association based in Berlin was founded in 2015 and has since been working to enforce fundamental and human rights with the help of strategic litigation. For years, GFF has been actively involved in the political debate about the so-called “Law against Digital Violence” (Gesetz gegen digitale Gewalt), which is currently being drafted by the Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ) and with which the Federal Government wants to improve the protection of victims of digital violence. Sina Laubenstein, project coordinator of the Marie Munk Initiative at GFF, gave our colleague Moritz Maisenbacher insights into the work of GFF, the role of civil society organisations in the political legislative process as well as her personal motivation for the fight against digital violence.
Moritz: The GFF recently published its own draft for a Law against Digital Violence. What goal are you pursuing with it?
Sina: With our draft, we are actively contributing to the debate on the protection against violence in the digital space. It was particularly important for us to present a draft that is sensitive to fundamental rights and is durable enough to work in practice. We are aware that it is not we, as civil society organisations, but the government that writes the laws. Nevertheless, our draft is a proposal, and of course we hope that parts of it can be adopted. At the very least, however, we want to give impulses that will inspire the Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ), which is responsible for drafting the law.
Moritz: In May of this year, the BMJ presented the first key points the law and asked for comments from affected companies, associations and organisations. You have also submitted a statement. Can you briefly outline what you find good about it and where you still see points of criticism?
Sina: Overall, it is a success, especially from a civil society perspective, that there is a key points paper at all. The fact that politicians have recognised that digital violence is a big problem and that the draft law has therefore already appeared in the coalition agreement has given us hope. We at GFF think it is good that account blocks ordered by a judge are provided for and that social networks are still obliged to appoint domestic agents for service of process. In our view, the design of the conditions for account blocking is particularly worthy of criticism. Currently, the corresponding proposal in the BMJ‘s key points paper formulates such high hurdles that they will hardly be applicable in practice for those affected. The account blocking tool is thus deprived of the possibility to be used effectively and quickly. For example, the term digital violence is defined far too narrowly – cases of incitement to hatred, for example, do not fall under it, although these are one of the biggest violations in the digital space.
Another point that we see very critically is the fact that there is currently no provision for counselling structures – either on their own initiative or on behalf of victims – to file applications for account suspensions. However, we know from experience that those affected often do not have the courage, but rather not the resources, to file a complaint themselves. In the coalition agreement, funding for counselling structures that would be necessary for this was announced. There is nothing about this in the key points.
In our view, the claims for information provided for in the key points also do not contribute to creating effective and quick remedies against digital violence. Google reviews are not digital violence. Such information procedures can quickly be abused.
We hope that the Federal Ministry of Justice will remember what the draft law is primarily about: the focus must be on those affected and they must be empowered to defend themselves quickly and effectively against digital violence. The pure concentration on means of prosecution and the regulation of digital platforms, as has been the case so far, is not sufficient for this.
Digital violence is a problem for society as a whole. We can’t just tackle it in one place. That is what I would like to see in the future. But we are only talking about key points here, it is not yet a draft law and certainly not a finished law. Now is the time for feedback and criticism. And to hope that other ministries will be involved, e.g., the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs (BMFSFJ) for the creation of counselling services.
Moritz: How do you as a civil society organisation get involved in the legislative process? How early do you start to influence the political stakeholders and the political debate?
Sina: The idea of account blocks was already mentioned in 2019 by Ulf Buermeyer, board member of the GFF, in an article in the Tagesspiegel and was subsequently taken up by other initiatives or parties. Our project started in November 2021, when we looked at who we could talk to politically, e.g., Members of Parliament (MPs) who are themselves affected by digital violence or who have already spoken out on the issue, or parties that have already taken up the cause of account blocking. But it was also important to find out where we ourselves fit into the large civil society construct. Because there are many civil society organisations that work either on digital violence or on fundamental rights in the digital space – we cover both. It was very important to ask ourselves where we see ourselves as a first step. To find out what the common demands are with other organisations, but also where we differ.
We then used the whole of 2022 to carry out an extensive process to come up with a balanced proposal. So, we first presented our initial ideas to other civil society actors and relevant MPs and then did a first feedback process over the summer with civil society organisations only. We then incorporated the feedback and criticism on our ideas.
Of course, we spoke with MPs and the responsible rapporteurs of the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag to see how the topic and our ideas were received by the parties. We also looked at the extent to which our proposal is compatible with the DSA (Digital Services Act) of the EU. For this purpose, we commissioned an expert opinion, which concluded that there is scope for national regulation. This enabled us to answer open questions and to be perceived as a serious dialogue partner in politics.
Moritz: Is everyone at GFF involved in the work on the Law against Digital Violence? As a donor-funded organisation with limited financial and human resources, how do you allocate your resources?
Sina: In the Marie Munk Initiative within the GFF, which is responsible for the law, there are two of us. Of course, there are always discussions with people from other teams. For example, the topic is regularly mirrored with our legal team in order to get feedback again and again. But it is also clear: we are not a huge team; we have neither a ministry apparatus nor lobbyist teams like companies have that can push the issue.
Moritz: How do you perceive your role compared to the large platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, etc.), which probably have less interest in having their platform sovereignty interfered with? What is the relationship like? Does an exchange take place here as well?
Sina: We have also exchanged ideas with various platforms. If only because it makes sense to talk to the platforms about the extent to which our ideas are technically feasible and make sense at all. Of course, the platforms have to play a role in the process. The exchange was never negative. But it is also clear that we are pursuing different interests in the matter. So far, however, there has been no massive headwind against the project. But of course, that can all change. At the moment, the major platforms are busy implementing the DSA regulations.
Moritz: Do you work strategically with MPs? E.g., by initiating small questions etc.?
Sina: Of course, we talk to MPs from different parties and organise parliamentary breakfasts, for example, as part of our F5 alliance, also on topics other than the Law against Digital Violence. We always try to actively engage in dialogue. Just hoping that our papers and statements will be read, and our ideas then taken up would be naive.
Moritz: Finally, what drives you personally in your daily work? How did you get involved with the topic of digital violence?
Sina: The main reason for this is that I was politically active even before I started working for GFF and, for example, supervised projects against right-wing extremism. In addition, I have repeatedly been in the crosshairs of digital violence myself and therefore have a personal motivation to get involved against it. Through my work for the GFF, I have also developed an even stronger awareness of always thinking through all possible consequences to the end when making political demands. This is very important so that in the end we do not end up with a law that falls on our feet and does more harm than good to society.