In the last month, the European Union passed two of the most significant pieces of legislation aiming to regulate Big Tech companies and their impact on online polarization. Meanwhile, Ashoka social entrepreneur Anna-Lena von Hodenberg — founder of HateAid — had a precedent-setting win of her own: a German court ruled that Facebook is accountable for removing hate speech and other forms of illegal digital violence from their platform once detected.
We spoke with Anna-Lena about how these changes happened, the future of tech policy in Europe and what it could mean for democracy. Watch the full conversation here. Here are a few of the highlights:
Anna-Lena founded HateAid In 2018 to provide support to victims of digital violence and make platforms accountable for better content moderation practices. Though she had always been involved in combatting racism and hate in Germany, her focus on online violence came when she noticed how the internet was increasingly being used by the far right to spread mass propaganda and hate in ways reminiscent of the Nazi regime. The motto “Never Again,” which had shaped her growing-up years in post-Holocaust Germany, was under threat and jolted her into action.
Shifting the burden from victims to platforms
Through their work at HateAid, Anna-Lena and her team started seeing a worrisome pattern that plagued the lives of victims of online violence. The only way they could get platforms to remove defamatory or hateful content was for the victims themselves to report each and every instance — an impossible feat, especially when it comes to viral content. When Germany’s Green Party politician Renate Künast faced this situation herself, Anna-Lena and her team saw an opportunity to pursue strategic litigation against Facebook for failing to adequately take down defamatory content. The case resulted in a landmark ruling shifting the burden of removal from victims to platforms.
Shaping the law so tech works for everyone
A growing number of social entrepreneurs are beginning to use strategic litigation — finding cases like HateAid’s case against Meta capable of creating new legal precedents — to shape the law and create new incentives for Big Tech to work for everyone. Anna-Lena shared some advice for those interested in pursuing similar approaches:
Advances in EU tech policy
Europe has a recent history of enacting tech policy that goes on to shape the practices of tech companies around the world, given the global nature of the Internet. The EU ostensibly created new global privacy standards in 2016 with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (albeit far from perfect), and most recently in April 2022 the European Parliament passed the Digital Services Act, in an effort to create a safer digital space and foster greater competition in the digital market. Anna-Lena broke down a few of the reasons why the act is significant.
Platforms as public spaces
While the threats to liberal democracy are real and the main reason Anna-Lena founded HateAid, she remains optimistic of the role we can all play to ensure tech works for everyone. She prompted us to reimagine platforms as digital public spaces that are ours to shape.