EU Affairs: Evolutions in Civic Space from Offline to Online

Sterling Rosen
Latest posts by Sterling Rosen (see all)
After the election of the new Right wing party, a protest occurred against the government.
Protest against Far-Right in 2018. Source: VOA

In Europe, the rising level of political polarization is manifested in the many challenges within political discourse. As a result, the importance of civic space has never been so vital. Defined by the UN, “civic space” refers to areas that allow individuals to gather and discuss political, economic, social, and cultural lives. These spaces are meant to be secure, so ideas shared within them cannot be censored or silenced.

In addition to being physical places, civic spaces also exist on the internet. With the evolution of cyberspace, the internet has become an extension of public participation, with citizens expressing their political positions online. The vast reach of social media and the variety of ideas and opinions it shares make censorship cases highly investigated, even more so when entire platforms suffer from this phenomenon. Restrictions on online platforms can cause a disturbance to democracy and civic spaces while increasing the prominence of misinformation. At the same time, the lack of clarity on information online affects what people discuss, and how they discuss it. 

Online and offline civic spaces should allow full and fair political engagement, but freedoms of expression and association are only granted to citizens when these spaces are not being targeted by the government. Without civic space, some of the most important conversations among fellow citizens may not happen and society would become more susceptible to isolation and oppression.

There are various reasons why civic space is important. For instance, the voices of the nation are those of its citizens. By restricting citizens’ expressions, the progress of society is limited, as it means that people can only communicate through their voting power. Instead, when civic spaces thrive, citizens discuss political issues openly and engage with political discourse to understand different perspectives and solutions that benefit all. This process of understanding leads society to improvement.

In healthy civic spaces, people feel as though they are working in a collective movement while acting and thinking as individuals. Not only does participation allow people to feel as though they have a voice, but the ability to participate, even as an observer, allows more people to gain an awareness of the political events occurring within the nation itself. 

Government actions that suppress and threaten civic space such as intimidation, protest disruption, and censorship are sometimes invisible to the public. Other methods to repress civic freedoms include severe escalations, like detainment and excessive force. These methods are present across the globe, and Germany is a clear example, where the Letzte Generation’s efforts to bring awareness to the climate crisis became a target of this kind of extreme repression. The group was subject to excessive force by police during a protest and some of the protesters were detained.

A woman protesting against the far-right in Vienna Austria.
Omas Gegen Rechts Protester in Vienna. Source: The Guardian

An Observation of Austria’s actions

In Austria, restrictions on civic space have been increasing over several years. For instance, on 27 March 2023, demonstrations by environmental activists protesting fossil fuels were banned in several areas and dispersed when they became too large. Another example of repression is the ban on pro-Palestinian protests after Hamas attacked Israel in 2023. 

Apart from dismantling demonstrations, there are additional efforts to impose stringent public surveillance, like constant recording. Although this action already infringes on the individual’s freedom to private life, the program aims to process biometrics through artificial intelligence (AI). Europol implemented these procedures to quicken the process of surveillance even if the use of AI for continuous surveillance endangers basic human rights.

The Anti-Terrorism Act has the potential to restrict the expression, movement, and association of individuals, significantly disrupting civic spaces in Austria. While the action aims to limit crime, it burdens people with an overwhelming amount of surveillance without effectively achieving terrorist crime prevention. Only petty crimes were partially deterred. The original purposes of the act are failing, as its intention to prevent terrorism is not coming to fruition. The widespread collection of data aimed at national surveillance may also hinder people’s freedom and reinforce the feeling of being watched, which also has negative repercussions for the use of civic spaces.

Simultaneously, expensive fines are given to several organizations that speak against the actions of the Austrian government and the city of Vienna. For example, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Austria (BDS Austria) group created posters that condemned the actions of Israel and linked the city of Vienna to the actions of the Israeli government. Consequently, BDS Austria was fined 17,000 Euros. Similarly, in 2023, the human rights group SOS Balkanroute spoke out against the Austrian facilities at Lima Camp, provoking a lawsuit from the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) against SOS Balkanroute. ICMPD’s lawsuit had the potential to intimidate SOS Balkanroute using the high costs of legal fees and to silence individuals who speak out against potential human rights violations and actions of the Austrian government. These instances of legal action are Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation, or SLAPP. The highest profile SLAPP currently concerns Verein Gegen Tierfabriken (VGT) and SPAR. VGT was protesting against SPAR by creating a bloodied logo to bring awareness to the conditions of the pigs that were being sold as pork products within their store. The satirization of the SPAR logo by VGT spawned a lawsuit with incredibly high legal fees, nearly silencing the organization completely.

VGT holds modified SPAR logo in front of the Salzburg Headquarters, 2024
Example of VGT SPAR Protest. Source: VGT

However, the progress towards an open civic space is visible. Although the Austrian government has moved towards hampering civic spaces, there is still room for improvement. One of these measures is the online tool Decidim, which is promoted by the government and aims to assist the public in organizing democratic participation and public assembly. Public displays and political participation levels increase with the use of public management tools. At the same time, numerous legal remedies ensure that intrusion into private matters is stopped. In 2019, the Austrian Constitutional Court ruled that the use of spyware aimed at uncovering private encrypted texts violated the right to privacy. This shows the Austrian fulfillment of the necessary procedures to protect civic space online and offline.

The Austrian government has taken numerous actions to uphold civic spaces, while simultaneously utilizing large legal fees to intimidate opposition. For the ongoing prosperity and security of citizens’ voices, the protection of freedom of expression must be a constant focus. The challenge of cyberspace integration into public space continues to pose many questions on how to move forward. However, protecting the dignity of humans should always be at the center of governmental action. The fundamental rights of people need protection and respect to ensure the progress and constant development of society and a future where civic spaces become a tool for freedom, improvement, and cultural and political exchanges.

Questions:

  1. What are ways to change current understanding and practices in online and offline civic spaces?
  2. How can people engage with the government and fellow citizens to create a more empowering and educative civic space moving forward?
  3. With the continued progress in artificial intelligence surveillance technologies, what are potential avenues to advocate for rights to privacy and the right to civic spaces?

For more information:

https://civic-forum.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Civic-Space-Report-2023-AUSTRIA-European-Civic-Forum.pdf

https://www.digitalaustria.gv.at/eng/topics/AI.html

https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/europe-and-central-asia/western-central-and-south-eastern-europe/austria/report-austria/

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EU Affairs: Evolutions in…

by Sterling Rosen time to read: 5 min
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