Saturday, June 28, 2014

The German internet: a huge desert with a handful of oases?

Indication 1: This post comes in English. Okay, just kidding on this one, the rest of the post is serious.

The Language
Of all the aspects we sometimes see as frustrating on the German internet (to be exact, the German part of the web), there is a single natural one, intrinsic, and really quite helpful to users: it is in German! A substantial part is bi-lingual, with English the main language besides German.
That's nice.
What is not so nice is the conspicuous absence of the language of Germany's largest minority, Turkish.
Learn German!
Not that easy a language, and we are not saying every government site should come in Turkish. In fact, the time when sites in Turkish would have helped most is in the past, the children and grandchildren are doing whatever translation work is needed for the family.
Immigrants help each other out, a fact some Germans find creepy and suspicious. Earlier this year, a government minister [!] said something along the lines "they do not speak German but show up at government offices with forms filled out in flawless German, this is strange".
Helping others can make both the helper and the helpee appear very suspect. 
Which makes eGovernment perfect: the officials at the other end won't know what you look like and how wonderful your German is. Well, at least until you get there in person.

A sometimes painful or disastrous aspect of German-on-German webbing is that older, or less educated natives get bamboozled and ripped off on the web by fellow natives. Plus the Nigerian spammers, too, as does the rest of the world.

Searching the web in German
A language in which Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänswitwe is not the longest word you can find, presents web search challenges. Other languages come with their own, they are not the subject here. 
German government web sites may give the impression that the authors are paid by the length of the words and/or that of the sentences.

Entering German into a web form
The worst days are behind us on this one. The Umlauts (like ä, ü) are mostly fine, the funny s (ß) kind of, too. However, when I talk to people and they praise German efficiency, I dig out the funny s just in case. If they still wax after a half hour, I'll say something like, sure, can we change the subject, please, maybe they can ditch the funny s, and then we talk some more about efficiency.
Today, the main problem is that the input fields are too small and do not accommodate the necessary number of letters.

Legal Landmines
Our single most effective bullshit detector for clueless politicians is their use of phrases such as "the internet is lawless", "the law does not reach the web".

Even before you connect to the web for the first time, the allegedly powerless law has made you part with money. Money to be given to royalty enforcers.

The smart phone, the latop, the tablet, the printer, the copier, the usb stick, the memory card, the blank DVDs etc., all come with a "content" royalty fee in Germany.

Since 2013, Germans have the privilege of paying a "license fee" for public broadcasting even if they do not own a single device capable of receiving these "services". The sad excuse of "internet offerings" of German public broadcasters makes it so that any computer was considered a "novel broadcast device" before 2013, automatically making you liable for a monthly fee of about 5 Euros. 
The stranglehold of the content enforcers is also responsible for the odd fact that broadcasters are forced to delete their own internet streaming or podcast offerings after a few weeks. There are discussions about extending this ridiculously short period of time...

Liability for an internet connection
It comes over a phone line, so treat it like a telephone. This condensed version of legal scholarship has proven to be a bitch for German users. Anything anybody does over your connection was your liability, fault or no fault, device or no device.

Yes, no device. An old lady was sentenced for copyright violation despite not having had a working connection, she merely paid for one, and she could prove to the court that there was no way she could have done it. A higher court overturned the decision not because they had to but probably because even the land of Kafka's language has its limits.

Recently, courts have started to give parents a bit of slack for the misdeeds of their kids or the friends of the kids. Still, you can be had.

Cease and desist letters
It is a huge business in Germany. You can receive a letter at any time claiming copyright infringement and demanding a cease and desist statement plus a fee for the item and cost of the lawyer. This got so out of hand that even the conservative German government of the time felt a need to cap the amount rights holders could ask for simple infringements.
Yet, it is a great model, as demonstrated in recent months in the "redtube" porn scandal. A court in the city of Cologne ordered Deutsche Telekom to give a plaintiff the addresses of thousands of customers who then received a claim.
The court was left red faced when it turned out that the claimants did not own the rights, that the software allegedly used to discover violations did not do the job, and so on.
Customers who paid the money are left high and dry, and while the courts said sorry, they are not liable for damages.

Another favorite target of the cease and desist trolls is the German equivalent to the "about us" section not only of professional web sites but also of simple pages "of a professional nature". Contact information is required and specified in fairly great detail.
Minor mistake or oversight: trolls at our mail box.

The crappiest single required disclaimer on a German site is the link warning. You must tell the world that links to other sites to not represent an endorsement. If you fail to do this, you can get into more trouble than you might expect.

If you publish anything on the net as an individual
Traps beside the above await you if you write for a blog, if you give any kind of advice or product review, or if you vent anger.
A few examples which made headlines in recent months:

Santander Bank went after a blogger for damage to reputation because the man was upset that his kid was to wear a Santander logo T-shirt as part of a charity deal with the son's school.

A customer who bought a self-assemble fly screen on Amazon put up a review saying that the assembly instructions were not right. He also said the processing was prompt and fast, the price reasonable. The company sued for the instructions bit.

If you give advice to a specific question, for instance, "when will this claim expire?", an answer as innocent as "this claim will not be legally enforceable after July 1st" you may be pursued for illegally providing legal assistance.

These examples are just German reactions. With your tweets and posts visible to several billion people, you may be fine at home but find yourself turned away by immigration at your vacation destination.

Let's talk website content
This section does not discuss online shopping sites but "information only" sites. There are plenty of great German online shopping sites but they are not very relevant to the "desert oasis" issue.

We do not have figures about the percentage of "ad farm" sites in German. The feeling that there is a disproportionate number of them may be wrong - or spot on.
Maybe they are simply better at search engine optimization?
We have the impression that much of the German web is a corporate driven "me too" web.
Many price comparison portals fall under this category. Then there are the gussied up yellow page sites with boilerplate text and contact phone numbers but no original content.

Video content on YouTube seems to be an exception, with lots of original content. But the royalty collectors of GEMA have their sights on YouTube, which means you will frequently look at a black screen.

GEMA wants YouTube to pay royalties. The argument brought forward in a new lawsuit filed by Austrian rights holders is that YouTube enables copyright infringement.

A more disingenuous argument is hard to find.

Why is nobody suing auto manufacturers for enabling deadly speeding? Or gun manufacturers for enabling campus shootings?

Or manufacturers of the humble shirt button for child endangerment? Go to the Mütter Museum, see their deadly buttons and weep.

And now rights holders VG Media and publishers go after Google. Even the German justice minister has signaled support for the VG folks and the quest for making Google pay for minute text snippets.

The VGs argue Google has a market share of 85% in the German search market.
A monopoly, they cry and ignore that there are several other search engines to choose from.

Say you want to license content produced by artist X, and X is a member of a VG. You have exactly 1 choice, the VG.
Which looks like a 100% market share.

But we cannot refuse service the VGs state proudly. True, if you pay a fee which only they and they alone set. You do not pay, you get zilch.

Google does not ask for a fee to present your stuff in the search index, and you get new customers.

One standout example of "what are they thinking" is the government job site Arbeitsagentur. You can go there look for a job, often apply to the employer by email but what if you want to register with the agency as a job seeker?
A friend of the K-Landnews did it a couple of years back. When he was done registering, the site said he'd get a password by mail before he would be visible to prospective employers.
We do not know if they still do this but it helps to make the desert feeling more tangible.

Where are the oases?
Nowhere near any site controlled by an established "intellectual property" publisher. Don't misunderstand us on this. The reasonable established sites like Spiegel, Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Welt, Süddeutsche etc. are fine providers.
But the internet only sites are the oases. Some, like have broken serious news stories and fended off corporate henchmen trying to silence them. Others, like the German Onion-esque Der Postillion are great fun.

Unfortunately, the oases are often hard to find, and if the German royalty associations get their way, the German internet desert will continue to expand.

The business model of "let somebody else do all the innovation, take all the risks and then take as much money from them as we can get" is, I am afraid, alive and well in some sectors of the digital economy.

To write merrily about the misfortunes of individual netizens getting hammered by cease and desist trolls, of people who had one tweet to many, to get inspiration from blogs and tweets without crediting any or paying - and then turn around and try to make Google, Microsoft, Telekom pay for text snippets requires a view of life we refuse to share.

We will stop making this claim once they successfully sue auto makers for enabling deadly speeding.

Yes, it is a compromise offer. We do not want to set them up for failure by sending them after the gun makers.

Disclaimer: We do not own Google shares, have no Google friends, and make no more than a few bucks a month from ads. Which you do not have to click!

[update] removed "expert" disclaimer

No comments:

Post a Comment