The German Ministry of Justice’s Guidelines for a Proposed “Law against Digital Violence” and Civil Society Response

By Todd Sekuler

Over the course of April, the German Ministry of Justice presented a set of guidelines for a proposed “law against digital violence” designed to enhance and expand opportunities for victims of digital violence “to enforce their rights themselves” ( The draft guidelines aim to address “notorious infringers of rights in the digital space” and seeks to assist in situations where the identity behind a particular social media profile is unknown. The blocking of an account, the guidelines stipulate, would be able to be requested of a court by persons targeted with violence or other infringement, but should only be considered if alternative measures are deemed ineffective and if judges see a “risk of repetition.” The current draft parameters stipulate that a profile should only be blocked for a reasonable period, and the account holder must be notified of any request their account be blocked and provided with an opportunity to respond. It also calls for the mandated preservation of incriminating data. The guidelines propose reducing legal hurdles for officials – and then, without any court costs, also any targeted persons – seeking the identity of a person behind an otherwise anonymous but illegal post or suspicious account by mandating that telecommunications companies (including messenger and internet access services) hand over user data, such as IP addresses and the names of the persons to whom those addresses have been assigned. The law will also ensure that users know who they can contact to have a statement deleted and to document a service provider’s knowledge, and that social networks have all appointed a domestic authorised representative in case of legal action directed at them in the country.

In response to a request for public feedback, some concerns of various civil society organisations were culled together by Chris Köver and Sebastian Meineck last week in German on the website (, which I tried to summarise here in English for readers of our blog.

1. More money, staff and training for counselling centres

Civil society representatives insist that counselling centres, not the judiciary or the police, are the first and best place to turn to for help with stalking or threats – because they support and centre victims. Many centres in Germany are understaffed, underfunded, and with limited resources for training on digital violence, which has become an integral part of violence generally, especially in partnerships. In response, the association Frauenhauskoordinierung and the Berlin Anti-Stalking Project demand increased resources for counselling services, including for regular basic training on digital violence. Funding, moreover, must be sustainable and guaranteed in the long term. The non-profit Superrr also emphasizes the need for special counselling for different forms of digital violence. Rather than designated IT experts for each counselling centre, the group suggests that centres can draw on IT staff together. Frauenhauskoordinierung calls for nationwide contact points to assist with technical questions and the initial securing of evidence, such as is already implemented in Baden-Württemberg.

2. Thoroughly define “digital violence”

Digital violence encompasses various forms of assault, but the contributors suggest that a clear definition of the term is crucial for the development of effective measures to help victims. They contend that the proposed law is broad and unspecific, and includes support extending beyond digital violence, such as bad restaurant reviews or other critics, which could ultimately negatively impact other rights and freedoms. Moreover, a narrow definition that includes offenses such as stalking or doxing – when attackers publish private addresses in order to harm people – would sharpen the law’s focus, and they also point to overlooked examples of digital violence, including the use of mini-cameras, GPS trackers, and blackmail. The law’s focus on hate speech fails to address significant aspects of digital violence primarily directed against women, such as cyberstalking, unwanted contact, and the publication of intimate recordings. By providing standard examples of digital violence, they contend, the laws application would be enhanced.

3. Explore the true extent of digital violence

Sensitive to the fact that digital violence is a widespread problem that includes various forms of harm, the civil society representatives draw attention to the fact that there is a lack of reliable research on the issue, including about perpetrators, and that hate speech gets the bulk of attention. The Berlin Anti-Stalking Project and Superrr both highlight the need for more comprehensive data to identify vulnerable groups and develop evidence-based policies sensitive to intersectionality. While digital violence is often seen as gender-specific, the federal government acknowledges that other marginalized groups are also disproportionately affected. However, the commentators draws attention to the fact that there are no separate statistics or criminal offenses for digital violence. A comparative study on violence in the digital space is planned for 2024, but a targeted study on affected groups and forms of digital violence is still missing.

4. More staff and training for the judiciary and the police

Civil society organisations call for urgent help for police and authorities in dealing with digital violence. They report that officials are overtaxed, lack understanding, and fail to take victims’ problems seriously. The Frauenhauskoordinierung in particular demanded more staff and training to sensitively deal with victims, while the police need training to learn how to secure evidence quickly. They propose that the judiciary also needs more staff to speed up proceedings. That being said, representatives note that the police can themselves become perpetrators of violence, which renders its own needs of support, accountability and justice, and can discourage reporting, especially for people from marginalised communities.

5. Clearly anchor image-based violence in criminal law

“Revenge porn” is a form of digital violence where intimate recordings are distributed without consent. Current laws only partially cover this, and victims often have to resort to copyright or data protection laws. The Criminal Code also only partially covers image-based violence, such as via section 201a, which only applies if a person was photographed in a “room that is particularly protected against viewing.” A new section (184k StGB) is aimed at cases like “upskirting” and “downblousing”, but lawyer Anja Schmidt calls for better protection under criminal law for adults, as only minors are currently protected. HateAid and the Frauenhauskoordinierung also see “biggest protection gaps” in image-based violence, and Green Party MP Renate Künast demands a separate offence for this in the legal code.

6. Protect private addresses of data subjects

Victims of online stalking and threats often have nowhere to turn for protection except their own homes, making it especially traumatic when their private addresses are also shared online. The contributors suggest that German law presents two challenges for victims looking to protect their addresses: Firstly, anyone can apply to the official registry of residents and find out the private addresses of any other person. While it is possible to block one’s address, this requires evidence of a threat – so when it is likely too late – and must be requested again every two years. Secondly, the obligation to include a local contact address for blogs and websites is a danger to those who run them, especially activists or freelance journalists. Solutions exist, such as allowing people to use law firms or co-working office addresses in the imprint, but need clarification and greater alternatives.

7. Informing those affected of their rights

According to the German government, media literacy and the knowledge of one’s rights are crucial in defending against digital violence. However, counselling centres report that many people are unaware of their rights. The Berlin project “Digital Angels,” which offers young women digital self-defence and other forms of support, reported that many of their members don’t know their rights, especially the application of “analogue rights” in the digital realm, or how to report and seek counselling. Superrr suggests that the government has a duty to work with states and municipalities to educate the public, including adult education centres. Victims can also be informed of their rights by counselling centres, although many are unaware of their existence.

8. Prevention: working with perpetrators

While perpetrator-focused approaches to the prevention of violence are gaining attention in certain areas, such as for preventing sexualised violence against children, they are hardly in discussions about digital violence. The European Network for the Work with Perpetrators of Domestic Violence, an umbrella network that advocates for taking digital violence seriously as part of intimate partner violence, runs a campaign intended to motivate potential perpetrators to examine their own behaviour and seek help if in doubt. In the same vain, prevention should also be emphasised in the guidelines, including education in schools on topics like surveillance in relationships, the consequences of stalking, the risks of sharing locations, and non-consensual sharing of intimate images.

To take this topic of prevention further and with some critical distance, how might we consider this proposed law, and also these responses by civil society, through the lens of state power and surveillance? Increasing resources to regulate and respond to digital violence offers a compelling solution in the short term, but is difficult to sustain, and it risks sidestepping the root causes of violence in society. How are these investments in the criminal justice system brought into dialogue with efforts to support and strengthen social and economic programs addressing the root causes of violence, online and offline? And how do both state and civil society approaches towards the criminalisation of digital violence relate to broader societal attitudes about crime, punishment and victimhood?