How German Intellectuals Don't Understand the Nature of the Internet. Or rather: Germany = Internet Development Country

I recently came across the so-called 'Heidelberg Appeal' initiated by some professor for German language and literature studies. In it, more than 1600 German authors, intellectuals and publishers lament that:

[A]t the international level, intellectual property is being stolen from its producers to an unimagined degree and without criminalisation through the illegal publication of works protected by German copyright law on platforms such as GoogleBooks and YouTube.

They mix this criticism with a condemnation of the open access initiative, a portal which offers the free use of scientific articles. One of the arguments for public access to scholarly literature is that most of it is paid for by taxpayers, who therefore have a right to access the results of what they have funded. This, in turn, would cut publishers out of the equation.

The undertone of this appeal is quite characteristic for the current mood in the Vaterland: The Minister of Family Affairs wants to introduce mandatory blockage of child pornography via a black list, a system potentially open to political abuse and economic pressure. In fact, the music industry would like to extend this list to 'P2P link sites' (whatever that means) in order to protect its intellectual property. Meanwhile a branch of the youth organization of the two conservative German political parties CDU and CSU seriously suggested that users must register themselves on youtube with their personal id-number. The reasoning for this measure: It is supposed to curb youth violence. I kid you not.

In short, as this excellent article on the German blog netzwertig (which I'm very much in debt to for the following points) explains: The basic quality of the internet as a space for open communication is threatened.

This threat basically emanates from groups and individuals who are incapable of grasping the digital nature of the medium. All over the world you'll find industries which are incapable of adapting their 'analogue' business models to changing circumstances. Businesses which are threatened try to get rid of the threat by calling for protective legislation. Eventually it comes down to a fight between the supporters of free information, communication, and knowledge and those who are afraid of these new freedoms and would like to curtail them.

The problem with Germany is… well, exactly that: It's Germany. Take the US for example, a country with a strong belief in a free market, freedom of speech and personal freedom. Here you find the same calls for a protection of the culture industry – however, the regulation of the internet is way less strict than in Deutschland.

Viewed under a long term perspective this should not be surprising at all: Germany is a country with very little liberal traditions. Germany did not see a single successful bourgeois revolt in which the concepts of freedom and unity helped to overcome suppressive structures. Instead, the bourgeoisie focused all its hope on the state as the preserver of the social order, though with a growing claim for absoluteness the myth of the nation corrupted a group whose initial core of existence revolved around cosmopolitan and tolerant concepts.

These tendencies were perpetuated by the darker side of German romanticism which the educated bourgeoisie gave itself over to. In contrast to an unscrupulous belief in progress and reckless pragmatism, people enjoyed the 'romantic' because it offered an escape from the rationalism of industrialisation: A romantic anticapitalism arose out of the conflict between humanist culture and capitalist exchange relations.

These specifically German foundational dynamics had a distinct impact of the perception of mass based cultural forms; these were mainly shaped by rejection, a strong control on behalf of the state or an over-enthusiasm which eventually betrayed a deep insecurity.

From its onset in 1923, radio was basically state controlled. After WWII the Allies dictated the Germans an organizational model for public broadcasting – as soon as they left it was thrown overboard in favor of a scheme that allowed more political influence. To this very day, the pressure political parties apply on public broadcaster is immense.

Given the country's spiritual heritage, German intellectuals were notoriously anti-modern, anti-capitalistic and anti-American. A very good example of this is the Frankfurt School whose elitist criticism of mass culture eventually amounted to allegations that weren't too different to conservative criticism.

Given this track record, some of the current developments aren't really surprising: The state trying to gain control over a free space, economic interests calling for the state's aid because they fear a loss of control (something which also betrays their lack of trust in the market), the inflexibility to adapt to technological changes and take them as a chance, the comparatively large technophobia of German society.

The problem of course is that if the internet in Germany is curtailed as heavily as suggested – its advantages getting completely lost in the process – the Vaterland falls even more behind countries where the internet and its inherent qualities change society and economy for the better (and where the legislation reflects this fact).

Germany is hardly prepared for the cataclysmic changes brought about by the internet. The net becomes more and more important – and the more important it becomes, the more Germany closes itself to it. With the according consequences.