Sigi Maurer: On Friday, she's hoping for an acquittal
Sigi Maurer: On Friday, she's hoping for an acquittal

In 2018, Green Party politician Sigi Maurer received obscene threatening messages on Facebook. She resisted, made it public, was then sued by the accused - and found guilty. On Friday, September 11th, the process will go into the next round. We talked to her about it beforehand …

Sigi Maurer
Sigi Maurer

We remember the "Bierwirt" case: In May 2018, Sigi Maurer, 35, was "talked stupidly" in front of the shop of a Viennese beer keeper, as she reported. Then she received obscene messages from that restaurateur's Facebook account. The Green Club chairwoman published this and was therefore reported by the owner of the craft beer shop. However, the restaurateur denied having been the author of the message: his PC and Facebook account would also be accessible to others in the restaurant.

He sued Maurer, who was sentenced in October 2018 to a fine of 3,000 euros for defamation. Another 4,000 euros should have gone to the store operator, and they should have paid for the costs of the proceedings. In March 2019, the judgment was overturned by the OLG, and the process has been renegotiated since then. Maurer's Causa brought the subject of "hate online" to the political scene, and it was discussed publicly for the first time. The result: a legislative package against hatred on the Internet that was presented by the turquoise-green government last week. What Sigi Maurer also strengthened in her fight, she explains in the WOMAN interview:

WOMAN: Ms. Maurer, it was with your "Bierwirt case" that you put online hatred on the political agenda in the first place. Now there is a legislative package on this. To what percentage is that your earnings?

Sigi Maurer: I wouldn't consider it my merit. There are a lot of committed women who took part and, curiously, it is partly thanks to this beer bar owner, because this story really got the public discussion rolling. In contrast to many other victims, I am in the privileged position of being able to reach a media audience and afford a lawyer. I can see that I have made a contribution, but it is based on the work of a great many, it is a mutual success.

What were the most important cornerstones during the preparation?

Bricklayer: There are two main problems with hatred on the internet: until now there are a lot of things that could not be brought to bear, and nothing could be done about it. And if it was actionable, then with an enormously high cost risk. Very, very many cases of hatred on the Internet have not yet been combative because you quickly had to bear a cost risk of up to 10,000 euros: Who can afford that? That is why it was our aim to broaden the criminal offenses so that there is more actionable. In the case of cyber bullying, it has been the case so far that uploading a nude photo once did not fall under cyber bullying, even though the damage has already been done. These criminal offenses are now being tightened and, on the other hand, the fast-track process we are creating is really revolutionary. But I also repeated for two years like a prayer wheel that there must be a possibility for those affected by which they can defend themselves quickly, unbureaucratically and inexpensively.

For you personally, where is the line between "This has to be reported" and "This is still going through"?

Bricklayer: As a politician, I absolutely believe that in my position you have to put up with being harshly criticized and sometimes verbally abused. But it is very clear where the line runs: wherever there are threats of violence, requests for rape, where the dignity of the people is clearly attacked. The debate often pretends to restrict expressions of opinion, in fact the opposite is true. With these measures, we want to ensure that everyone can act online and express their opinion without being insulted and suppressed.

When was the last time you were affected by such comments?

Bricklayer: It is the case that something comes every day. The news is not always complaint, but especially in the last few days after we announced the legislative package, there are of course many people who feel they have to attack me especially. I don't have the time to look at all of this at the moment, a lot is pre-filtered by Facebook and I've already blocked a lot of people.

Have you become more hardened?

Bricklayer: It is certainly the case that you develop a different relationship to being in public. I know the mechanisms behind it, I know what the intention of people is when they post such postings. They aim to get those affected to withdraw and thus try to push public figures out of the debate. Just like what happens in the analog room, by the way. The haters want those affected to be silent. It also often happens that they then log off their accounts, withdraw from social media, and no longer express their opinion. And if you understand the mechanism behind it and know that it's not about you personally, then you can deal with it better.

As a result of your trial, many women affected also contacted you: What problems were you told about?

Bricklayer:On the one hand, I was told of many experiences of violence - online and analog. A lot of people have also sent me screenshots and asked: What can I do? At that time we succeeded in setting up a very large legal aid fund at ZARA, the reporting office for hatred on the Internet - it still exists. Because so many cases could not be brought, it was always very sad because I could only answer: "Go to the ZARA association, let them check whether something can be done." That made me angry, after all there were a lot of women there who said: "Thank you for fighting, I won't take it anymore either." Many women have obviously recognized through this story that they are themselves also want to fight back and then had to recognize again that they have relatively few options. Unfortunately, that was always very sobering. So I am now extremely pleased that we have succeeded in taking a big step with the legislative package and making it easier for those affected to defend themselves.

For example, the court costs will be suspended for the next three years in such cases so that those affected can afford to defend themselves: And after that?

Bricklayer: This is about flat-rate costs that would normally be incurred and that we suspend for three years for this type of procedure. Then it is evaluated how that develops. The main thing is to see how big the volume is. After a while you will be able to assess this better. This generally applies to the law: We are now creating something big, but of course also something new, so you have to look at how things develop overall.

After the legislative package was presented, I immediately received a press release from the operators of the BanHate app (for reporting hate on the Internet), who criticized the loopholes and believe that the government underestimated the scope of the problem: They are assuming a great flood of reports and fear that the courts will be overloaded if there is no increase in staff. How do you react here?

Bricklayer: We simply have no way of knowing how many reports and proceedings there will be, I expect a few thousand a year. When it comes to the already mentioned fast-track procedure, it has to be said that it will be much less bureaucratic than a conventional judicial procedure. You fill out a form, upload the screenshot to the district court and the judge looks at it and decides within a few days how to deal with it. There is no need to schedule a hearing, there is no legal requirement. We hope that the effort will not be so high. And in order to combat hatred on the Internet, we have taken other measures: There is also the Communication Platforms Act, which will oblige platforms such as Google, Facebook & Twitter to delete hatred if it is obviously illegal.

Here, too, there is criticism: Why are the forums not obliged to do so by the local media?

Bricklayer: This is a misunderstanding, the forums of the daily newspapers are already subject to the media law and are therefore obliged to delete comments that are obviously illegal. Actually, what is already valid for newspapers, we are creating for Google & Co. as well.

Facebook and Google said that they were against national solo efforts and in favor of a European solution: What can the EU now learn from Austria?

Bricklayer: We're not the first country to do that. In Germany there is already the Network Enforcement Act, which the EU Commission has also approved. Since then, Germany has been the only European country that Facebook takes seriously, so that's already having an impact. The EU is working on the Digital Services Act, in which exactly such topics should be regulated, but it won't be ready for a few years, and I don't see that we should wait any longer until we finally get Google, Facebook & Co in take responsibility.

In addition to the new legislative package: In your opinion, what else is needed to regulate our everyday life on the Internet?

Bricklayer: One law can of course only regulate the hard cases. We don't want a state that intervenes over every little thing, accordingly there will still be postings that cannot be regulated by law, but where moral courage is required and where the point is to say: "I don't think it's okay, what you are saying here."

Because not everything that is hate can be sued. But now we're going to see how the legislative package works in practice and in case of doubt we have to sharpen it.

"I don't see why I should go any other way!"

We come to the "Bierwirt case": The trial continues on September 11th. What do you expect

Bricklayer: I very much hope that an acquittal will finally come about and that it will be the last day of the trial. I assume that it will be like that, but you never know, I believed it the first time and then I was convicted. But no matter how it turns out, in the unlikely event that I am not acquitted, I will keep fighting.

You have emphasized again and again that they will keep fighting, nevertheless: Have you ever considered giving up in the past two years?

Bricklayer: No. And above all because of the many people who have written to me and the countless donations that have come for the legal aid fund. The most moving news came from a 50-year-old woman from Germany who wrote that she had just read about my case and she has now noticed that she has been changing the sidewalk side all her life when a group of men is in her way. And because of me, she would have decided not to do that anymore. I drew a lot of strength from this news. It's a very nice feeling when you see that what you are doing has a real impact.

What was your greatest learning from it?

Bricklayer: I never expected that this story would get so much attention and that so many people would show solidarity - from the most diverse groups. Police officers wrote to me as well as fathers who actually vote for the ÖVP or FPÖ because they see it as a scandal. This broad solidarity was a great experience.

What goes through your head when you walk past this craft beer bar in Vienna today?

Bricklayer: I just pass it because I don't see why I should go any other way.

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