Despite considerable publicity, a German-language portal mixing racism and firearms is still online. DW's Jefferson Chase is appalled and tries to figure out why something so odious is still freely available in Germany.
At first I thought it was a bad joke.
Migrantenschreck (the name translates as "scourge of migrants") is a German language website that not only features racist tirades against refugees but sells pistols for use against them. It was recently featured in an article in the Tagesspiegel newspaper and it seemed alarming that an internet site such as this would not already be blocked in Germany.
It's not. Hosted on a Russian server, the homepage offers five models of compressed-air firearms ranging in price between 229 and 749 euros ($244-799), a crossbow and several types of rubber ammunition. Buyers can pay for their purchases by money transfer or bitcoin. All the guns are strong enough to require a weapons permit in Germany, yet users, who are encourage to "protect yourselves and your families," are promised that products will be delivered discretely and "without annoying bureaucratic hurdles and irritating forms."
Product videos show men blasting away at cardboard figures representing dark skinned intruders as well as photographs of leading German politicians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bundespresident, Joachim Gauck - all to the strains of country-and-western and blues music. A "news ticker" section contains sensationalized reports of migrants allegedly committing various misdeeds. The page has 8711 facebook likes.
It's hard to imagine a website more at odds with German law - paragraph 130 of Germany's criminal code unambiguously prohibits "incitement to hatred" and makes it punishable by a term of imprisonment from three months to five years.
I consoled myself with the thought that migrantenschreck's days would probably be numbered now that the website had been exposed to public scrutiny. Upon closer reading, however, I discovered that this particular bit of Internet ugliness has been a matter of public record for months.
A twisting trail
The Austrian Internet activist initiative Mimikama uncovered the weapons-for-sale portal back in early May on the facebook page of the racist Anonymous.Kollektiv organization. At the time, the portal had a Swiss Internet address. Mimikama reported what it had found to facebook, which responded that the page in question didn't violate its standards.
By May 21, the page of Anonymous.Kollektiv, which masqueraded as part of the usually left-wing Anonymous organization with its iconic masks, had disappeared from facebook. The man thought to be behind the page was a 33-year-old from the eastern German city of Erfurt named Mario Rönsch, who was and still is listed by name in the sparse company information provided on the migrantenschreck website. Several legal complaints have been filed against Rönsch, and German police would like to detain him, but his whereabouts have been unknown since mid-May.
In June, the eastern German broadcaster MDR ran a report about the weapons portal, which by then had begun to regularly change its domain. The report concluded: "It will be interesting to see how long migrantenschreck remains online." The head of the Greens Party in the state of Saxony officially complained to the police that migrantenschreck was inciting hatred.
At roughly the same time, Bavarian broadcaster BR reported that the site was aggressively pursuing new customers with direct emailing to the subscribers of the anti-immigration magazine Compact. Its publisher claimed that the magazine's subsriber lists had been hacked.
In mid-August, Vice magazine wrote that police in the southern German city of Constance had charged a man for illegally ordering a firearm from migrantenschreck. The headline of that article posed the question: "The End of Migrantenschreck?"
Around that time the website moved to Russia, and it is still very much online. The website claims that migrantenschreck is a brand name of a limited liability company called Német-Magyar Kereskedelmi és Értékesítési (German Hungarian Trade and Distrubution Society), which was registered in Hungary in mid-September. Other than tax and businesses registration numbers there's no information available online that would indicate the company truly exists. Its CEO is listed as Mario Rönsch.
Even if it's questionable how active a company migrantenschreck is, reports of its impending death have been greatly exaggerated. Why is such a repulsive website still freely accessible in Germany?
The German government has no authority to shut down the Russian server currently hosting the site, and Germany has been historically reticent about blocking individual web addresses. Usually a specific court order is required for each IP address, although individual federal states within Germany have blocked racist, xenophobic and radical right-wing content in the past.
Some 3000 websites, the vast majority pornographic or child-pornographic, are indexed in Germany. The list is kept top secret. But even when possible, blocking individual IP addresses is rarely effective. Users can employ proxy servers or virtual private networks to get around national blocks.
It's proven more effective in Germany to prosecute those who use the Internet to violate the law - for instance, it works better to go after people for copyright infringement than to try to block file-sharing sites before they're used. And Germany has also been ramping up pressure on sites like Google, facebook and Twitter to clamp down on illegal forms of speech rather than just enforce internal guidelines.
A raft of recent studies has shown that hate speech is on the rise on the Internet, with migrants and refugees being a frequent target on German-language websites. Migrantenschreck is a part of this libelous and dangerous discourse. But unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this particularly repugnant website will disappear unless authorities apprehend Mario Rönsch. Until then, the best they can do is probably to arrest anyone who uses the illegal services the website offers.