changing justice

Legal Experts Debate 'Free' Web Services

facebook finger getty images
Is your account really free?

For downloads, streaming and other internet services advertised as free by web companies, users don’t pay in euros but in something just as valuable: their personal data.

So are they really free? Or do they actually cost something, if no financial reimbursement but personal data is required, which, in turn, is used for advertising?

It’s one of the controversial issues German legal experts are debating at a meeting in Essen because of the legal requirements applying to paid services under German civil law – and also because of the companies involved.

Facebook, with more than 24 million users in Germany, offers its services “free of charge” but requires customers to provide a certain amount of personal data and tracks their clicks to generate billions in advertising revenue. That, in the view of some legal professionals, is a problem.

“I can imagine that sentencing hearings in important cases could be broadcast but I certainly don’t want to see live footage of sweat pouring down the face of a defendant.”

Thomas Kutschaty,, Justice minister in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia

Till Steffen, the justice minister in the city-state of Hamburg, has called on companies like Facebook to offer an alternative pay-to-use service for those customers who prefer not to provide personal data, including their page clicks.

Another area the legal experts are focusing on is the internet’s impact on today’s workplace, which has become far more flexible and less controllable. How does German labor law, they question, apply to “nomad workers” who have no assigned desk, office or location and who are primarily connected to their employers via data transmitted over the internet?

Legal professionals agree to the need to bring the country’s civil law, the so-called “Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch,” in these and several other areas up to date with the digital world.

Although the group has no power to change laws, in its role as enforcer, it has a powerful voice to recommend changes to lawmakers at both the state and federal levels.

Laws governing children are also in need of reform, the experts say. “We have many patchwork families, same-sex families, surrogate mothers and sperm donors,” Monika Anders, the president of the district court in Essen, told the public broadcaster WDR. “The discrepancy between biological and social parenthood is not regulated by law and is in need of reform.”

Because  Germans increasingly wish to view key hearings, the legal profession is warming up to the idea. But whether or not German courts will ever open up to television to the extent they have in the United States remains to be seen.

Some authorities, like Thomas Kutschaty, the justice minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, see a place for cameras in German courtrooms, albeit with restrictions.


camera court dpa
Will Germany watch trials being transmitted live from court? Source: DPA


“The justice system doesn’t need to hide,” he said in an interview with the public radio station Deutschlandfunk. “I can imagine sentencing hearings in important cases being broadcast but I certainly don’t want to see live footage of sweat pouring down the face of a defendant.”

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière plans to participate in the debate on the colloquium’s final day on Friday.


John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!