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Internet for all

Silke Wünsch / ewJanuary 27, 2013

A top German court has ruled that people can sue their Internet providers for damages if connection is lost. The court has ruled that access to the Internet represents a basic need in modern society.

Network cables connected to a server Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach
Image: dapd

The complaint that brought about the ruling came from a man who lost his Internet connection for two months due to an administrative error caused by a takeover of his Internet provider by another company. He is now entitled to monetary compensation - and while the amount may not be very high, the ruling reflects an important shift. With it, Germany's Federal Court of Justice has stated that Internet connection is a modern necessity, on par with the right to mobility.

The court compared the situation to a car owner claiming damages after someone else has caused an accident that renders the car unusable for some time.

A 'vital' part of life

Among other reasons for the judgment, the Federal Court states that "the majority of German residents use the Internet on a daily basis. It has become a medium that plays a vital role in the lives of most people, and whose absence has a significant impact on daily life."

Federal Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is happy with the outcome: "The ruling shows how fundamental the Internet has become for an informed life. Internet use is becoming recognized as a civil right." This is why, she added, Germany's governing coalition has agreed not to implement any sanctions that would block people from using the Internet.

The seat of the German Federal Court in Karlsruhe
According to the court, the Internet is hard to live withoutImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Germany's Pirate Party, which supports freedom of information, sees the ruling as having "far-reaching consequences" for policy-makers, as stated by Pirate Party national executive board member Klaus Peukert in his blog. He notes that if Internet access is classified as a basic need, it has to be taken into account in unemployment benefit payouts. It also means that any proposals to cut off Internet access for notorious copyright infringers have to be laid to rest.

"The federal and state governments now have a duty to treat Internet access as a basic need and to close the gaps in the broadband network across the country," Peukert added.

No access for online offenders?

The topic of blocking file-sharing users' Internet access has been a topic of public discussion in Germany. A so-called Three Strike System has been proposed, whereby the first two transgressions result in a warning and the third in one month of no Internet access.

A system of this kind - dubbed HADOBI after the law on which it's based - has already been used in France for several years, and it has resulted in a drop in online copyright infringements. German record companies and publishing houses have been hoping for similar measures, but the right to privacy has always prevailed in such considerations.

The nature of file-sharing is changing, too. Internet entrepreneurs like German-born Kim Dotcom are leading the way, creating possibilities for data exchange via cloud computing. His newest service, called Mega, allows users to store files in cyberspace rather than on their own hard drives, making them accessible from any location. Dotcom's site has been online since January 19, 2013, and allows the upload of encrypted data. One can expect similar platforms to follow.

Kim Dotcom Photo: REUTERS/Handout/Files
Dotcom keeps hunting for ways to promote online file-sharingImage: Reuters

In the meantime, the German Federal Court's decision can be seen as recognition of the right to Internet access. For providers, this demands a more careful approach to customer offers and the obligation to deliver what they have promised.