Clamor in Germany to expand public Wi-Fi access has prompted cabinet to adopt telecommunications law amendments. For differing reasons, retailers, providers, and privacy activists slam the draft text as ill-conceived.
Germany's poor Wi-Fi structure compared to the strides made in places like South Korea crystallized into a multifaceted row in Berlin on Wednesday, when the cabinet approved changes to exempt German hotspot providers from legal redress.
Smart device users, who might be tempted to breach copyright by downloading songs and videos or who violate anti-hate rules, will be required under the law change to give their Wi-Fi host such as a hotel written assurance that they will not act illegally before signing into the network.
Federal legislation known as the "Tele-media Law," which sets the framework for Internet usage across Germany, would be amended so that Wi-Fi hosts - known in Germany as WLAN (wireless local area networks) providers - would no longer be liable if sued by debt collectors or lawyers acting for recording labels. They do so by tracing a host's so-called IP (Internet provider) address.
"We hope for an impulse so that, for example, cafés or airports or simply a private person can open his WLAN and make it accessible to others," said Tanja Alemany, spokesperson for the German Economy Ministry.
Aside from indemnity from user misdeeds, each hotspot owner would also have to provide "adequate" electronic security, for example, via recognized electronic encryption methods.
Social Democrat Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, also Germany's deputy chancellor, on Wednesday said he hoped the legislative amendment would come into effect in the second quarter of 2016 to meet the "basic need" for mobile, uncomplicated Internet access "at all times, and everywhere."
Complaints over law draft
Germany's HDE retailers' federation said the change drafted by Gabriel's ministry would push shop chains, now investing heavily in Wi-Fi expansion, into the costly bureaucracy of running user registration systems.
Shoppers with smart phones wanted "quick and simple" access to make online payments on the spot or to compare retail rivals' prices, said the HDE's deputy chief executive Stephan Tromp.
And, the amendment's "vague" rules on how German Wi-Fi was to be made electronically secure exposed retailers to a new legal "trap" for debt collection lawyers, Tromp added.
Larger scale providers of so-called "cloud" storage and social network services said the "half-baked" amendment would expose them to legal regress, according to Oliver Süme, a board member of the Internet provider federation ECO.
Until now, providers had not had to vouch for illegal content deposited in their servers by users. In the future, "hazard prone" providers would become liable.
Opposition Greens federal parliamentarian Konstantin von Notz said the amendment ran counter to privacy rights anchored in Germany's constitution.
"We must widen the right to anonymity instead of sawing it off," said von Notz.
EU guidelines ignored?
Already in July, German consumer protection commissioners had warned Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government that its proposed law amendment would breach the EU's free market guidelines for online business, or E-commerce.
Germany has only 1.89 Wi-Fi hotspots per 10,000 residents. South Korea ranks highest in the world with more than 37 hotspots per 10,000 - coupled with high download rates.
The German Economy Ministry's Wi-Fi drive is part of the coalition government's so-called Digital Agenda aimed at boosting electronic capabilities nationwide.
ipj/msh (AFP, dpa)