Germany's Internet Angst
by David Hudson
Nearly a decade after the fall of the Wall that had so clearly defined two
Germanys for 40 years, the reunified nation still shows symptoms of
schizophrenia, and nowhere are the symptoms wreaking more havoc than on the
Just as US politicians reach for the buzzword "terrorism" to justify
incremental invasions into the privacy of its citizens, German policy-makers
point to the country's "special history" when they feel the itch to eavesdrop
on their own, or to plug perceived leaks in their national mediascape. The
Internet has opened a gusher.
The most sensational instance of what Ingo Ruhmann of the Forum of Computer
Professionals for Peace and Social Responsibility calls the German
government's "control madness" has surely been the saga of Felix Somm. The
former managing director of CompuServe's German division was found guilty last
month on 13 counts of knowingly facilitating the spread of child and animal
As Judge Wilhelm Hubbert read the verdict, Somm's round head throbbed beet
red. The moment the Bavarian judge rose and exited the court room, Somm leapt
up and spat on the bench, and it took all three members of his defense team to
calm him down.
Somm's outburst is representative of the anger many who offer and use
telecommunications services in Germany feel when faced with the ignorance and
temerity of a government official like Hubbert. A 300-page compendium, the so-
called Multimedia Law, which went into effect on 1 August 1997, was supposed
to have gotten Somm off the hook. Essentially, the law states that ISPs can be
held responsible if they are aware of illegal data on their own servers only
if it is technically feasible to stop it.
Somm's defense lawyers argued that the Internet is very big indeed, that no
one can be aware of everything out there, and that blocking access to any one
bit of it is an exercise in futility. The case was so convincing, even the
prosecution did an about-face and pleaded for Somm's acquittal. Last week, the
prosecution filed an appeal to overturn the conviction they had obtained.
The success of Somm's appeal is virtually assured, but the verdict fanned the
flames of public outrage. "What has gotten into the Munich judge?" asked the
Süddeutsche Zeitung the next day. "Did he simply want to set an example out of
sheer anger that the Internet ... slips out from under German jurisprudence?"
Hubbert's ruling, however, is only one of several examples of the German
government's fear of the Internet. While the major online providers, economic
ministers, and organizations such as the Electronic Commerce Forum and the
German Multimedia Association have all wrung their hands over this particular
verdict's effect on the future of the industry in Germany, several activists
are seizing the moment to point to a slew of equally ghastly developments
currently looming on the legal front.
A court in Hamburg, for example, recently ruled that the creator of a Web page
is legally liable for the content on any page his or her own page links to.
It's an uncanny echo of the brouhaha more than a year ago surrounding the
former vice chairwoman of Germany's Party for Democratic Socialism, Angela
Marquardt, whose site linked to the leftist publication Radikal. That trial
eventually fell apart on a technicality, leaving the door open for the Hamburg
The Finance Ministry, meanwhile, has announced its intention, which runs
counter to those in the United States and Japan, of introducing taxes on
Internet-based commerce after this fall's upcoming national elections.
But the most insidious symptoms of "control madness" are revealed in the plans
of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's cabinet to issue a "telecommunications
surveillance order," requiring ISPs to build snooping capabilities into their
own systems. Worse, it's not just the ISPs who will be affected by the
expected order, but also those who run intranets within companies, schools,
and universities, or any telecommunication equipment used by third parties
more than 10 percent of the time -- such as hotel telephones.
The final twist of the knife is that all these providers are expected to foot
the bill themselves, estimated to be no less than 15,000 marks (US$8,500) for
the first year, not including labor and operation costs. One industry
representative estimates that the largest providers may have to pony up as
much as 100,000 marks ($56,000). With more than 400,000 service providers
potentially affected, the economic consequences could be disastrous, and many
small companies would simply have to close up shop altogether.
These plans are part of a wave of controversial initiatives dubbed "The
Surveillance Attack" by the national press. The proposed laws originally
included officially sanctioned wiretapping of journalists, medical
professionals, and suspected criminals until they were watered down by public
Despite the voices of protest from within even Kohl's own conservative
Christian Democratic Party, laws such as the telecommunications surveillance
order may be permitted to stand. In that case, the only means of privacy left
to German citizens will be cryptography -- but crypto legislation, as hotly
disputed in Germany as anywhere else, isn't expected to be put on the table
until after the fall elections.
Old habits are hard to break, especially the bad ones. Germany's current
"control madness" in all its darkly comic manifestations, from the Somm
verdict to the proposed near appropriation of ISPs as federal listening posts,
is itself a critical symptom of the country's uncertainty in a rapidly
shrinking world. Germany cannot join the global economic frenzy, much less
help lead it, while retreating to its own private infosphere.
[ From: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,12884,00.html ]
[ Note: Find an excellent german translation here: