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The German Internet Freedom Charlie Foxtrot

German minister of family affairs, Ursula von der Leyen

Quick note from Widge: One of the best things about having international contributors is we can get info from people who are “on the ground” where stuff is actually happening. So Dom decided to send us his take on the recent news about Germany and their bright idea of internet censorship.

I’d rather be fighting Zombies. Or windmills. Or even zombie windmills.

I should have known. Really. When–out of the fear of cyber-criminals and hackers–the German government passed a law that declared the development and usage of software that is aimed at testing the security of networks and computer systems, I should have known.

This law, if “interpreted” like some people read the Bible, makes it practically illegal to ping a network and makes it illegal for software companies in Germany to produce security testing software. Nice one. Can I still use “ping”? I have the feeling I can not.

As so many really silly laws though, this one never really was a problem because the police neither has the means nor the knowledge to hunt hackers or sysadmins. It would make for some great comedy though. “Put down the mouse! Don’t you dare start that brute force attack!” – “I have a port listener and I am going to use it!”

[ad#longpost]And while this law does what laws do best (it exists quietly and unnoticed) the IT incompetence of our government marches on. We have an election year, a major one. Local and European elections happened already, state and national elections are next.

Time for our leaders to fight the three biggest threats at hand. Computer games, freedom of information and our constitution. Wait, what?

The discussions about so called “killer games” have been dominating the headlines for some time and were fueled once again when another school kid went crazy, took an automatic gun to school and used it for its intended purpose. Evidently, the weapons were easily obtainable for the kid although he had shown signs of depression before but conservative politicians focused on something the shooter had in common with a few million people. Yes, how surprising: like so many people today he enjoyed the playful over the top violence of computer games.

Although there are some scientists saying that playing first person shooters makes it easier for someone to kill with a gun, I still think the gun in the hand of the problem child is the bigger part of the issue. I guess I am a pragmatist. If you disagree and think the games are the problems, here is some nice fact for you: Germany has the strictest youth protection laws when it comes to entertainment in the whole of Europe and yet the highest number of school shootings.

Still, only a short time ago, the ministers of the interior of our states decided to propose a new law: “For games with essential components like the virtual practice of killings which are portrayed close to reality, or other cruel or otherwise inhuman deeds of violence against humans or human like beings, an explicit ban of production and distribution is to be realized as fast as possible.”

I am no lawyer but I know my way around words and their interpretation. If you interpret this very literally and have a somewhat weird understanding of non-absolute terms like “close to reality,” “cruel” and “human like,” then wrestling games, zombie games and maybe even a certain Italian plumber could be in danger. But I digress.

Say what you want about the ban of not only a product but also an industry, what really irks me about this is the speed with which this was brought up. The ministers try to realize this ban before the national elections. Gee, I wonder why.

Yet this has not been the first of incompetent reactions to school shootings, the one in Winnenden on March 11 this year being the most recent one. In April, the mayor of Nürnberg did not allow an eSport event to happen in his city, due to the school shooting the month before while allowing a gun exhibition only weeks after the shooting–an exhibition during which fifteen guns were stolen. I guess the eSport event would have been more dangerous, imagine fifteen kids throwing around computer mice and DVDs, yes, they would scare me in a dark alley.

In their tradition of rushing things and completely failing at understanding technology, the two big leading parties have reached a new climax. On June 18, the German Bundestag (Federal Parliament) passed a new law in order to fight the distribution of child pornography through the internet. An internet filter is to be established that makes it possible for the federal police to prevent German internet surfers from visiting internet sites that are on their blacklist. A secret blacklist of course so that nobody knows which internet sites are forbidden. Everyone with a little knowledge about technology knows that this filter will be easily bypassed by anyone who can use Google and everyone who does not like to have a infrastructure of censorship applied to the internet is of course mad as hell. Before the law was passed, the initiator–the minister of family affairs, Ursula von der Leyen–shined with quotes like “Browsers? What are browsers again?” and over 130.000 Germans did not care to be mentioned in the same breath as paedophiles by signing a petition against the law.

Von der Leyen has been named “Zensursula von den Laien” (Censursula of the Laymen) more than once by now. She effectively took over the throne of internet ridicule from the former king: the German minister of internal affairs, Wolfgang Schäuble. He made headlines trying to give the police the power to infiltrate computers by using trojan horse software and effectively binding internet providers to save the connection data of all Germans for a year…in case someone lost an important email I guess.

Now that the law is passed and will soon be fought in Germany’s Constitutional Court, the signs of a political change manifest themselves more clearly. The German “Pirate Party” is close to entering the parliament–and in a way already has, since a social democrat changed his alignment after the passing of the bill. How much this will affect the elections is unclear. We are facing a generational problem here: those who understand and care about the freedom of information online and whether or not a computer game should be illegal while buying and producing guns is legal belong mostly to a younger generation. The two big parties governing the country through a big coalition right now have most of their voters among people who do not know the difference between the internet and a computer navigation system. They are the majority, though, and they are traditionally more likely to show up at the voting booth.

They won’t care, or won’t understand what this Internet Filter means–but they might care that is all done in order to prevent child pornography. If you tell them the filter is almost ineffective they will say “at least they did SOMEthing”, if you tell them they are building a censorship infrastructure that lacks an effective control system they will most likely not know what you mean.

But let’s come full circle: another member of the German parliament now wants to use the instrument to ineffectively censor the internet for German citizens to also fight the evil “Killergames”. Since a DNS filter wont be able to censor a game on your computer, the Christian democrat Thomas Strobl must be talking about censoring websites that include information about those games. Yes. That sounds nothing like 1984. Not at all.

I hope to be able to report better news soon, friends of distant lands.

I would love to provide some links but instead I am going to link you guys here to Wikileaks: they have done a good job collecting a lot of data.

More of Dom can be found at GeekEteers.