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Germany not a hard-line censor after all

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Rumours of state censorship in Germany may turn out to have been just a little exaggerated. However, plans for putting their child abuse blocklist on a legal footing may yet have far-reaching consequences for internet users in that country.

Earlier this week, we were hearing reports that wikileaks.de – the German offshoot of Wikileaks – had been blacklisted in its home country as a result of publishing the list of sites on the Australian Government’s ban list.

This follows a raid last month, and search of the homes of the German Wikileaks domain sponsor, Theodor Reppe, by German Police. Official documentation of this event confirms that it was Wikileaks publication of Australia's proposed secret internet censorship list that triggered this intervention, although the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) have since claimed that they did not ask the German government to take action.

Putting two and two together – the raid more or less coincided with the commencement of a voluntary agreement with ISP’s to block child porn – there is a strong whiff of state collusion in this affair.

When, therefore, it was reported on Monday that the German registration authority DENIC had delisted the wikileaks.de domain, conspiracy theorists had a field day. This was initially reported as the price that Wikileaks was paying for embarrassing the German and Australian Governments.

We spoke to DENIC, who said that the delisting was a matter solely between Wikileaks and their ISP: DENIC were merely following orders.

wikileaks.de is hosted by Internet domain registrar, "Beasts Associated". Last December, it is alleged that the wikileaks.de domain holder, Theodor Reppe, attempted to instigate a transfer of the domain name bnd.de (the German FBI).

Beasts Associated were suitably unimpressed by this action and issued a statement (pdf) saying: "As a result of Mr. Reppe behaving in a manner that contravened the terms of the contract, notice of termination of his contract was issued as long ago as the start of December 2008, with the contract due to end on 30 March 2009, once the period of notice expired.

"No objection was submitted in respect of the termination, and no legal action is pending against the termination."

They also warned Reppe that he should move his domains to another registrar as his domains would be placed "in transit" after March 31.

This time at least, the silencing of a voice of protest appears to have more to do with bureaucratic bungling than the iron fist of the state.

At the same time, debate within the German Political establishment about how to put together a mechanism for blocking access to child abuse material appears to have taken a far healthier turn. To date, much of the running on this issue has been made by Minister for Family Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen (Christian Democratic Party). Her approach has been to push for a fast track private agreement with big internet service providers including Deutsche Telekom, Arcor or 1und1 Internet.

In the German Parliament last week she said: "The rights of children carry more weight than unhindered mass communication."

The problem with her approach – which echoes that taken in the UK by the Internet Watch Foundation – is that it lacks a full grounding in the law.

Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries joined with members from her own party and the Green Party in warning against a contractual solution. She argued that any filtering regime must be given a proper legal footing because it could touch on fundamental rights of citizens and requires policies for liability for possible errors.

The debate continues and no doubt wikileaks.de will be back – just as soon as they manage to sort their subscriptions out. ®

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