Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2017, 17:20 GMT

Internet Under Surveillance 2004 - Germany

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Internet Under Surveillance 2004 - Germany, 2004, available at: [accessed 22 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
  • Population: 82,414,000
  • Internet users: 34,000,000 (2002)
  • Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 11 euros
  • DAI*: 0.74
  • Situation**: good

Germany was an early pioneer in facilitating Internet access and is today one of the 20 most connected-up countries in the world. However, the authorities have taken steps to fight online racism and pornography that could threaten freedom of expression and message privacy.

Germany's history means it is quick these days to censor websites preaching racial hatred. But though it is simple to ask ISPs to block access to local neo-Nazi sites, it is a more delicate matter to routinely filter such sites based abroad and this has caused heated debate. The federal government has not taken a clear stand on it and differences between federal and provincial governments confuse the situation further.

Interception of e-mail and monitoring online content

A July 1996 law requires ISPs to give the intelligence services access to their Internet traffic, including e-mail and other online customer activity.

The G-10 law, which limits the right to message privacy, was amended in 2001 to require ISPs to give intelligence officials all means to spy on or intercept national or international electronic or voice communications.

After the 11 September attacks, an anti-terrorist law pushed through parliament by interior minister Otto Schily at the end of 2001. The Telecommunications Interception Order, which came into force in January 2002, allows intelligence officials and police to access online activity stored in digital form, including details of services used by customers, e-mail exchanges, data enabling senders or users to be identified and the records of telecommunications firms.

Twenty or so civil rights, freedom of expression and personal data protection organisations formed a coalition to condemn such surveillance. They said the law would not stop terrorism and criticised the legal reasoning behind the measures.

The federal parliament gave a third reading on 12 March 2004 to a new telecommunications bill, which was amended at the request of Green and Social Democratic MPs to provide greater message privacy, notably by eliminating the routine retention of data about phone and online activity. Schily had said in December 2003 he wanted to oblige ISPs to retain such data for a least a year.

Dresden University has launched an "anonymizer" system called ANON to protect online privacy and counter the anti-freedom effects of the post-2001 anti-terrorist laws. It enables users to visit websites without leaving a trace of their identity on ISPs. The government asked ANON's creators in August 2003 to make an exception in some cases, but the request was turned down by a court.

Website hosts made responsible

A 1997 law on use of telecommunication services (TDG) made website hosts responsible for their own content and that of sites they hosted, but their responsibility for monitoring the legality of all content was not clearly established.

The law was amended in December 2001 to incorporate the 2000 European e-commerce directive, stipulating that a website host was not responsible for illegal content if not informed of its existence. But it confirmed that hosts could block access to sites without a court order (see chapter on European Institutions). In practice, their responsibility has hardly ever been invoked before a court and no unjustified censorship has been recorded so far.

Blocking access to websites in Westphalia

The North Westphalia provincial authorities began compiling a blacklist of websites in October 2001 and asked more than 80 local ISPs to block access to them using software developed by the firms Bocatel, Intranet and Webwasher. On 8 February 2002, for example, they asked for two US-based neo-Nazi sites to be blocked.

The German Association to Protect Electronic Rights (FITUG) and many Internet users have protested at this censorship, which affects communications infrastructures themselves more than it does the authors of website material that violates the national constitution or human rights. The blocks are easily got round by accessing the sites from another German province. The local authorities have said access to more than 6,000 sites may be blocked. Some ISPs are challenging the measure in court.

Alvar C.H. Freude, a German expert in online censorship and webmaster of the site, was the target of a legal complaint in June 2003 by the provincial authorities, accusing him of posting links to two neo-Nazi websites blocked in February 2002. They were posted as part of a study of online censorship in Germany, so a conviction is unlikely. Freude was one of the first to criticise the Westphalia censorship measures.

Filtering of pornographic sites?

A commission to protect young people in media matters (KJM) was set up in April 2003 with power to order hosts and ISPs to block access to sites. It could order the filtering of sites based outside Germany (see article by Ben Edelman on the dangers of filtering).

Germany belongs to the US spy network Echelon

The media revealed in June 2001 that the government had allowed the country to become a link in the US Echelon electronic spy network. The Bavarian daily paper Merkur, citing a US military intelligence report, said the US base at Bad Aibling (Bavaria) housed one of Echelon's biggest European electronic monitoring and interception centres, after the US base at Menwith Hill, in Britain. It enables the US to spy on e-mails sent from much of Europe, including all the former Soviet bloc countries.

The revelation caused an outcry because Germany has not signed the UKUSA agreement setting out the roles of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the spying system.


* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.

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