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Germany ends liability for wireless hot spots

June 30, 2017

For years Germany has been a wasteland for wireless networks thanks to draconian rules for network operators. Businesses are now free of liability for illegal downloaders using their network, but not everyone is happy.

Wireless hotspot sign in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

Operators of publicly accessible wireless networks in Germany will no longer be liable for the illegal activities of their users, thanks to new legislation passed in the Bundestag on Friday.

Before the new legislation passed, operators of wireless internet hotspots faced fines and legal action if people used the network to download copyrighted content. That liability greatly hindered the rollout of Wi-Fi networks as businesses feared liability.

As a result Germany severely lags behind other countries when it comes to providing free internet, with just two wireless hotspots for every 10,000 people. The problem frustrated locals as well as the rising number of foreign visitors who are left scratching their heads at the difficulty of finding an internet connection outside of their hotel.

Infographic - Number of cafés in Europe with free Wi-Fi hotspots per 100,000 residents

Providers will no longer have to password-protect their networks or require users to register when the legislation comes into effect later this year, Minister of Economic Affairs Brigitte Zypries said.

The ruling grand coalition agreed to the changes after lengthy negotiations aimed at enforcing the rights of copyright holders while still relaxing the laws.

Copyright holders retain some power

Rights holders can still demand wireless network operators block individual and specifically named pages to prevent repeat copyright infringements, Zypries said.  Such blocks are generally possible "simply and without prior technical knowledge," the minister said.

Read: Berlin public and corporate Wi-Fi block LGBT-friendly websites

Read: Germany to invest 100 billion into national gigabit internet network

Industry association Bitkom and the Green party said that clause would hamper the rollout of hotspots, saying operators could face financial risk from legal action.

"The right to block pages means a lot of effort for the hot spot operators, be it a student accommodation block, a café or a telecommunications company," Bitkom chief executive Bernhard Rohleder said in a statement.

"We therefore demand that illegal content be deleted, instead of requiring hot spot operators to block queries - especially as blocks are usually technically easy to circumvent," says Rohleder.

The German Association of Cities welcomed the decision, saying city dwellers would benefit.

"Fast, free WLAN hotspots are useful for city tourism, urban business promotion, access to cities' digital services, and much more," chief executive Helmut Dedy said in a statement.

Sony sues German shopkeeper

The amendment to the Telemedia Act was prompted by a recent decision by the European Court of Justice, which stated that while wireless network providers should not be liable for violations by third parties, "a court or a national authority can issue an order against a wireless network provider to prevent the repetition of an infringement."

The case was heard after Sony brought legal proceedings against a shopkeeper in Germany in 2010 after a customer used free internet access to illegally download a music album covered by Sony's copyright.

aw/jm (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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