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The Net Neutrality Debate Returns in Germany, Rousing Activists

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, May 7 2013 Petition Creator meets with Telekom Executive (Facebook)

Against the backdrop of the German national election campaign, the Berlin Internet conference re:publica opened Monday with organizers calling on Chancellor Angela Merkel to oppose a controversial proposal by phone and Internet provider Deutsche Telekom to effectively eliminate its flat rate broadband service.

Deutsche Telekom, the leading German broadband provider with a market share of 45.2 percent at the end of 2012, says the pricing changes are necessary so it can invest in its infrastructure. Niek Jan van Damme, CEO of Deutsche Telekom's German operations, told Die Welt that currently average Internet users were subsidizing heavy users and so it would only be fair for the latter to pay more. In the interview, he also said that Telekom's revenue had shrunk while data volumes are projected to grow substantially by 2016.

As Der Spiegel reported earlier, under the new tariff structure, users who hit certain data download thresholds would experience throttled connection speeds.

Online activists such as Markus Beckedahl, founder of the blog Netzpolitik and re:publica organizer, criticize that the proposal would go against net neutrality, especially since the Telekom would exempt content from its own entertainment service from the data caps. Van Damme denied that claim to Die Welt, because he said that service was not an Internet service, but rather comparable to cable or satellite TV service.

While initial reports suggested the new structure would only be for new customers, Die Welt then reported based on its interview that the new terms would go into effect for all Telekom Internet customers by 2018.

On Monday, in remarks opening the re:publica conference, Beckedahl called on Merkel to prevent the implementation of the ISP's plans. "Prevent the Telekom from establishing a second-class Internet," he said, addressing Merkel, according to Der Standard. "They want to toss away the core principle of an open and free Internet."

Earlier, the German Minister for Economics and Technology, Philipp Rösler, from the free-market FDP, the coalition partner of Merkel's conservative CDU, had written a letter to the Telekom CEO expressing concerns about the plan. As Der Spiegel reported, Rösler warned in the letter that the government would "very carefully follow ongoing developments with regard to a possible differential treatment of (Telekom's) own and rival services under the aspect of net neutrality."

The German government is still the largest shareholder of Telekom.

In a reply to that letter, René Obermann, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, suggested that terms such as net neutrality are being misused to "cement" the idea of an "entitlement" to flat rate access with unlimited data volumes. He wrote that perpetual flat rate access is "not practical."

But writing for Netzpolitik, blogger Andre Meister suggested that this argument was faulty. He cites a report by the recent parliamentary committee of inquiry on the Internet and digital society that questions the likelihood of network capacity problems in the near future and concludes that the main motivation for ending flat rate plans was declining revenue. Der Spiegel noted that at least two other German providers already have certain capacity limits, but that all would be watching the Telekom's plans very closely.

A petition started by 18-year-old high school student Malte Götz from Düsseldorf, who is in the the midst of his final graduation exams, has gathered over 170,000 signatures, and has been shared or liked on Facebook over 29,000 times and tweeted over 3,300 times. Götz is interested in software-development in his free time, and has developed a browser extension allowing the viewing of YouTube videos that are blocked by geographic restrictions, a significant issue in Germany. He submitted the petition to Deutsche Telekom last week. The company noted a meeting between Götz and van Damme on its Facebook page with a photo.

Götz and other activists have adopted the term "Drosselkom" in their campaign against the Telekom, based on "drosseln," the German term for throttling. Across social media, online activists have been distributing mock Telekom photo and video ads for slow Internet connection speeds and shrinking data allowances, and encouraging users to remix their own mock ads. Some of the results compare the move to dial up Internet, the Stone Age, horse drawn carriages, steam engines and snails. According to the website, users have created over 3,000 remixes.

Want to bet that this snail is faster than your Internet? // Back to the Modem Age - Germany's Internet Strategy

One group of activists, including the Cologne Pirate Party, are planning a protest against the proposal in Cologne on May 16 during a Telekom shareholders' meeting, and are organizing their activities on social media and a wiki initially dedicated to their opposition to a new law allowing security officials to obtain users' IP addresses.

During another re:publica session Tuesday that also included a Telekom manager, a representative of the Federal Network Agency said it would require transparency about the new tariff structure and would look into the net neutrality issues, the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung reported. On Monday, the head of the agency wrote to Telekom requesting more information. The Consumer Association of North-Rhine Westphalia, the most populous German state, also criticized the proposal, and suggested that the courts would have to decide whether the new contract terms are legally permissable.

On Tuesday, the Berlin Pirate Party parliamentary group agreed to introduce a motion in support of net neutrality.

The Social Democratic opposition is also seeking to make the debate an election issue. The party's main Facebook page shared a post citing its election platform with the message: "Throttling of the Internet? We will forbid that after the election," and announced plans to introduce such a measure into Parliament in the near future. The SPD's election platform, decided before the debate began, promises to codify net neutrality into law. Local SPD candidates for the Bundestag, such as Christina Kampmann in the North-Rhine Westphalian town of Bielefeld, have also spoken out against the proposal and in support of net neutrality on social media.

The proposal has come under criticism in the national media as well. In commentary for the FAZ, technology editor Michael Spehr wrote that "the idea that going forward a transporter of bits and bytes can inspect, filter and, as the case may be, block transmitted content is unique in the Western World. It is an attack on the free and open Internet ... Germany is treading a singular path that must be scrutinized." The controversy even prompted a segment on Logo, the public broadcaster's news program for children.

In the past few years, Germany has been at the forefront of Internet policy debates with the emergence of the Pirate Party and German activists leading the opposition to ACTA. But when the opposition to a German news licensing law was unsuccessful earlier this year, many observers and members of the movement questioned whether the wider public was really engaged with the issues.

Writing for the English edition of the Deutsche Welle, Thorsten Benner, of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, suggests that the current controversy could mark "a turning point with Internet users increasingly realizing that they need to organize politically in order to fight for digital rights and preserve the web as a force for innovation ... Minister Rösler's so-called broadband strategy does not provide a convincing plan for the scale of the push needed. If DT's phasing out of the flat rate spurs activists in civil society and business to successfully push for a more ambitious political agenda on digital rights and innovation, it will have served a good purpose after all."

In an interview with the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung, Ryan Heath, spokesperson for EU-Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, said that the EU Commission would issue a legal recommendation regarding net neutrality before the end of the year. But he also noted that issues such as the one concerning the Telekom were first and foremost disputes between a company and its customers, and warned against government overregulation. Regarding the possibility of a two-class Internet, he added that there was already inequality in the availability of broadband service, and said companies needed incentives and the ability to write-off their costs to invest in broadband for remote areas, but also should have the freedom to offer different service tiers to consumers.