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Internet

Internet Republic raises user protection fears

German policymakers are divided on how to protect Internet users as a Bundestag inquiry prepares to submit a report in April on how the Web is changing the country.

Munichis Germany's third largest city - and it's firmly in the hands of a small penguin - the one that represents open source software, Linux.

Its logo can be found on most of the workstations at the offices of the city government. That's about 15,000 computers.

Since 2003, Munich's local government has opted for license-free software, such as Linux and Open Office, over licensed products from Microsoft or others.

The city aims to save up to 20 percent of its IT costs by avoiding license fees.

The City of Munich is seen as a pioneer because if its IT strategy. By relying on open source software, it aims to get the highest level of independence from software makers, which usually dictate costs and standards.

Digital out of breath

There are a handful of cities and government authorities doing the same in Germany.

Among them are Leipzig, Mannheim and Freiburg.

But it's hard to speak of a nationwide migration to free software by public authorities as was suggested in a German government strategy paper ten years ago.

On the contrary, some federal authorities, such as the foreign ministry, are turning their backs on open source software and returning to Microsoft Windows and other paid software instead.

It's a sign, says Markus Beckedahl, an advisor to the inquiry on the Internet and Digital Society, that Germany is taking leave of its role as an international pioneer on license-free software.

Beckedahl blames the strength of Microsoft's lobby in Germany and says it's an issue of convenience as well.

"Alone the fact that the print button is in a slightly different position in Microsoft Office compared to Open Office tends to overwhelm a lot of people," says Beckedahl.

The logo of Linux, a penquin, overlayed on a photo of the Munich City Hall (Photo: Peter Kneffel dpa/lby)

The City of Munich is a pioneer of free software among German public authorities

It's a fear of change.

The Internet and the use of free software are big issues for both policymakers and the public. Beckedahl believes this is because the media only ever focuses on stories of anarchy on the Web, software security breaches and cyber attacks.

"It creates fears that could lead to restrictions on basic rights," says Beckedahl, "things that no one would accept in the real world."

Beckedahl - who also writes for netzpolitik.org, a blog for freedom on the Internet - says the best example of this fear is the debate around telecommunications data retention in Germany. Mobile operators are required to store user data for at least six months in case it is requested by a court of law.

He warns that overregulation could lead to the death of a free and creative Internet.

"At some point, we will have two Internets - one that is free and another that is not free - a Kidsnet," Beckedahl says.

What do users wants?

But what kind of an Internet do we actually want?

This was one of the questions addressed by the 34-member commission on the future of the Internet and the digital society. Over a period of three years, 12 project groups met more than 180 times to debate various questions on security, free software, and regulation.

A drone flying over the state of Nevada in the US (Photo: James Harper/U.S. Air Force)

Governments around the world are also having to deal with how to regulate new technologies like drones

Their final report is to be submitted to the German Bundestag in April.

Ahead of the report, a clear political divide has emerged over the question of how much protection Internet users should be offered.

While left-leaning parties, such as the Social Democrats, The Left and the Greens feel that the government needs to take more responsibility, centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Free Democrats advocate self-regulation.

Wolf Osthaus, an Internet expert for the conservative CDU/CSU's parliamentary group, says users need to be informed about the freedom of choice where possible.

"But if a user says that convenience or a good price is most important for them, and they accept that binds them to a certain extent," says Osthaus, "then it's important that they should be able to do that."

However, there are those who say being informed is not enough.

The Left's Halina Wawzyniak represented her party at the inquiry. She says users should be protected from the power of Internet giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

"Better protection measures," says Wawzyniak, "can't simply be replaced by better information."

DW.DE