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  • John Riceburg: Will Berlin get free wifi soon?


John Riceburg: Will Berlin get free wifi soon?

Germany's cabinet and federal court have just made decisions that could make it a lot easier to get online.

Image for John Riceburg: Will Berlin get free wifi soon?
Photo by Dirk Vorderstraße (CC BY 2.0, Flickr)

UPDATE: It’s happening! Yesterday (May 25) the city announced they were putting up antennas for a free, city-wide wi-fi network in time for the Euro football championships on June 10.

Yesterday I got back to Berlin from the Ausland. It doesn’t matter where I was, since most countries in the world – from Bolivia to Vietnam to the US – has at least one thing Germany doesn’t (besides Pegida): free wifi.

In New York City, they have open wireless networks at subway stations. In Peking, you can log on at public toilets. But in Berlin, my phone inevitably shows a long list of lock icons.

The reason for this is an arcane law known as Störerhaftung. It means that the owner of a DSL connection is responsible for everything that goes over it. Exberliner has reported how café owners with open networks are threatened by lawyers demanding recompense for illegal file-sharing. It doesn’t matter if they have no idea who was responsible .

This law is plainly ridiculous…

  • If you’re going to claim the owner of the DSL connection is responsible, why not go straight to Telekom?
  • Can you sue Deutsche Post if someone sends counterfit money via the mail?
  • Can you sue the highway service if someone transports cocaine by truck?

This is one of many unfortunate results of a legal system based not on a jury of your peers, but rather on old, conservative men in black dresses. But it’s not just silly – it wastes endless amounts of human energy.

I have been one of at least four million people in Germany who have received threatening letters (Abmahnungen) from lawyers. They wrote at least a dozen times over two years, demanding more than €1000. This continued long after I told them I had never even heard the song in question. I knew this was just an attempt at a shakedown – they only actually go to court in less than one percent of cases. But I’m neurotic and suffered anguish without end.

Is relief on the horizon? The Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that the ruling coalition has agreed to change the law. If that happens, we can all throw open our networks and grant our neighbors their basic human right to look at videos of hamsters eating tiny burritos

The day after that report, Germany’s federal court decided that DSL owners couldn’t be made legally responsible for the actions of other adults. Finally. Now this isn’t a license to download whatever you want – but now, you’ll only get in trouble if the lawyer of the content owner can prove who, individually, was responsible. 

So will Berlin now be flooded with hotspots? The Pirates promised this back in 2011, but it was never even seriously considered due to “legal problems”. Now, it seems likely – if the city won’t do it, activists will link up antennas into a big Freifunk

Sweden, where no such law ever existed, has five times as many networks per inhabitant as Germany. Now, if you happen to get another Abmahnung, you can confidently wipe your ass with it.