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Hashtags and Robots.txt: How German Parliament Debates Internet Policy

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, November 30 2012

The German Parliament on Thursday held its first debate about a government-proposed law that could force search engines and other online news aggregators to pay a license fee to news publishers for displaying snippets of online news articles.

During this first round of debate, scheduled Thursday at 10:40 p.m., Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration and its allies defended the law as harmless to freedom of expression and a necessary step to regulate an increasingly vital Internet. Opponents questioned the unforeseen consequences that might result and criticized the coalition government's record on Internet policy, joining Google and some allies who have sought in recent weeks to build public opposition to the law.

In the United States, it's fairly noncontroversial to suggest that lawmakers are not well-versed enough in the language of the Internet to have a nuanced discussion of Internet policy. In the Bundestag, however, it does not appear that the Germans have the same problem.

Max Stadler, part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, supported the law as harmless to freedom of expression and certainly to the "vast moneybag of Google." He argued that the government was only creating regulations that were absolutely necessary for the protection of news publishers on the Internet. Christian Democratic Union MP Ansgar Heveling, a member of a commission on the Internet and Digital Society and already infamous in some circles for his support of SOPA in the U.S., compared the law to the need to regulate the financial markets and the German concept of a social market economy. The key question, he said, was "how unregulated the economic area of the Internet should be."

Meanwhile, Social Democrats and members of the Left Party, Green Party and Liberal Party all came out opposed.

"I was mistaken," Tabea Rößner, an MP speaking for the Green Party, began her remarks. "I always thought they would never get this nonsense through." She argued that nobody, not even those who who had drafted the law, could say for certain whether links would be protected or not. The law would restrict access to information by requiring that search engines, aggregators and commercial blogs must have a license to list German news content, she said, and wondered whether Google would be required to phone up all bloggers one after another. She also argued that the law would economically benefit lawyers, while journalists are the ones who could really use the money. "Your youth organizations have spoken out against this law along with other party youth organizations. That should make you think," she argued. "If we were fighting about this law on Twitter, I would have two nice hashtags for it: Fail and Facepalm."

Thomas Silberhorn, an MP for the Conservative Party, argued that that simple links would still be allowed without payment. He also argued that the right to citation would not be affected, private usage would still be possible, and that the search function of search engines would not be touched. The usage protected by the law, he said, was clearly defined and circumscribed, and the law would not apply to commercial users that aren't Internet search engines.

"All commercial usage is possible that doesn't consist of the processing of external content for one's own economic purpose," Silberhorn said.

He also said it would be possible to address questions about the boundaries during the legislative process, and suggested that the law could find imitators internationally if it works in Germany.

"Freedom of the Internet can't mean that anyone can help themselves to goods and services that others provided," he said.

Lars Klingbeil, an MP for the Social Democrats and parliamentary group correspondent for new media, slammed the bill and the coalition government's record.

"Further development of broadband? We are behind Romania. Anchoring of net neutrality into law? Negative result. Modernization of personal data protection? Negative result. Opening a path to the Internet economy? Negative result," Klingbeil said. "The Internet policy balance sheet of this government is shaped by this law." He argued that that the law could create insecurity and uncertainty, and harm the creativity and innovative character of the Internet.

Klingbeil also suggested that Internet policy experts in several parties, including those among the coalition government, had come out against the bill.

"Today the youth organizations of the parties positioned themselves against this law together," he said. "Dear colleagues, it was not just the young Social Democrats and the young Greens, but also the young Conservatives and the young Liberals. Why don't you listen to the young people in your parties? Why don't you listen to the Internet policy politicians in your parties?"

Jimmy Schulz, MP from the Liberal Party, defended the coalition's Internet policy accomplishments, suggesting that the government first had to clean up the "pile of broken glass" left by the previous administration. He said the government had lifted an Internet blocking law which had targeted child pornography, had moved away from the data retention policy, abandoned a central database of employees' earnings and prevented ACTA.

But he seemed to be less enthusiastic about the licensing law itself, and appeared to be proposing an alternative. He noted explicitly that the Robots.txt function allows content owners to specifically clarify what content should be indexed or not. He suggested however, that this 15-year old "gentleman's agreement" lacks legal protection. "This model offers the benefit that it would be valid not just exclusively for news publishers, but also for bloggers, for anyone who publishes content online," he said. "My position remains clear: Code is Law."

Despite the debate's scheduled 10:40 p.m. start, all of this happened under the watchful eye of Germans interested in Internet policy issues. They shared their reactions to the debate on Twitter with the hashtag #LSR, short for the German term for the law, Leistungsschutzrecht.

"The Internet," remarked Stadler, "doesn't sleep."