German Court Tells Wikimedia Foundation That It's Liable For Things Users Write

from the that's-a-problem dept

I've spent a bit of time in Germany over the past few years, and the entrepreneurial community there is really interesting. It's become a hot place for emerging startups and there's a lot of excitement, especially in Berlin. Similarly, it appears that a number of internet activists have been flocking to Berlin. So it's become a really vibrant community of folks trying to make the internet better.

But the one thing that worries me quite a bit about the German internet scene is its very dangerous view of secondary liability -- in that German law and courts tend to lean towards blaming the intermediary for the actions of their users. I learned this the frightening way on stage at conference in Germany, under some very hot lights (in a decommissioned airport) where a somewhat angry questioner in the audience insisted that some comments written on Techdirt by some of our users were "illegal in Germany" and that, under German law, I was liable for them. He stood at the microphone with a laptop reading the comments and demanding I answer for them, despite never having even read those comments, let alone created them. I suddenly started mentally counting down the time until my flight home. I defended secondary liability (and basic free speech concepts) and was able to leave the country without problem (and have been back a couple times since then). However, as a few people explained to me on that trip, a real hindrance to innovation in Germany is this antiquated view of secondary liability whereby sites can almost always be declared liable for actions of their users.

It appears that this tragic view has struck again -- this time against the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind Wikipedia. The Higher Regional Court of Stuttgart, has found that the Foundation can be held liable for content on Wikipedia. In this specific case, someone argued that some Wikipedia content was libelous. While the court says that the organization doesn't need to proactively police its content, it does say that if anything has received any sort of complaint, suddenly the Foundation can be held liable.

Of course, this is a recipe for easy censorship. If you don't like something in Wikipedia, just file a complaint, and to avoid liability, the Wikimedia Foundation will have strong incentive to delete the contested language. Of course, this goes against nearly everything that Wikipedia stands for in terms of how content gets edited on the site. Even if legally required to, it's ridiculous for a German court to basically tell the Foundation that it needs to effectively delete passages of Wikipedia editors and then block that content from being put back. Rulings like this make true user-supported media operations legally difficult to maintain, and will increasingly scare top internet companies out of Germany.

If someone posted libelous information, go after them. Putting the blame on an intermediary isn't just misguided, but it also creates a strong chilling effect on innovation.

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  1. identicon
    Pragmatic, 3 Dec 2013 @ 5:46am

    It is as unreasonable as it is illogical to hold one person responsible for another's behavior. What they're trying to do is create a class of "approved speech" to limit what we can or can't say. While I understand Europeans' desire to keep speech clean and decent, there's a very thin line between "unpopular" and "unacceptable."

    And stifling unpopular speech won't make it go away, it simply drives it underground.

    Authoritarianism is a real threat to freedom and democracy. Let's not let their mealy-mouthed excuses convince us otherwise.

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