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NRW election results

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In light of my last post, I wanted to share the results of the North Rhine-Westphalia state diet elections, now that they are out. In essence, the election was a sound success for the SPD/Green government which now has the majority of seats in the diet (before the forced elections, they were operating a minority government). The conservative CDU had a big loss and The Left was resoundingly kicked out of the state diet. The Pirate Party had a pretty big win and gets seats in the assembly for the first time. All in all, this election was a success for the Pirate Party but it looks like the myth of being “third strongest party” has been thoroughly dispelled. The Pirates gain 20 seats in the state diet but are far from being a force that is included in any decision making, especially because of the unwillingness of more traditional parties to ally themselves with the Pirate Party. Let’s hope this result gets other parties to adopt some of their more key values, though.

Source: tagesschau.de

 

Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

May 14th, 2012 at 12:51 am

Why I am not voting Pirate

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I have already voted in the federal state diet elections in North Rhine-Westphalia which will take place on Sunday (I tend to use the postal vote system as I find it more convenient than running to a ballot on my day off). Contrary to what many people might guess, I have not voted the Pirate Party. After being ignored by the mainstream press for the majority of its existence, possibly due to the fact that the large publishing and broadcast companies did not at all enjoy its initially very copyright reform happy agenda, the German branch of the Pirate Party has been bathing in hype and media attention for months now. To the point where opinion polls are claiming it will be the third most popular party nationwide. I was initially very supportive of the party and even angry when it seemed like the mainstream press was boycotting any reporting on it, but as time has moved on I have become more and more weary to the point where I now consider the German Pirate Party unelectable myself.

The reasons for my change of heart are diverse. Let’s begin with why I was supporting the party initially: Copyright and patent reform as well as a staunch anti-DRM stance and emphasis on freedom of speech, freedom of the internet and open access were all points I very much identify with. After all, the Pirate Party used to be so much in favour of copyright reform, that even RMS was worried. Sadly, there aren’t many mentions of copyright and patent reform left in the electoral manifesto. The Pirate Party is still saying it wants to reform copyright, but it is saying this very softly. Their representatives are constantly downplaying this aspect of the party in public debates. I completely understand why this is happening. To become a popular party that wants to have even the slightest chance to be part of any administration, wide-reaching copyright and patent reforms have to be de-emphasised. The Pirate Party has learned that the rights holders are a powerful lobbying group that directly or indirectly controls most of the media organisations in Germany. Even Google had to learn the hard way that you do not mess with GEMA without having powerful friends. So cries for a copyright and patent reform and anti-DRM activism has to be tuned down. I understand this. If these were the only arguments against voting the Pirate Party, they’d still have my vote.

Unfortunately, there are other arguments against voting orange, as it where. There’s the persistent right wing tendencies. Something that I will not tolerate from any party. Freedom of speech is one of the most important things to fight for but it does not excuse electing borderline Nazis into the leading cadre of your party. Nor is the fact that you could not expel the member in question because a legal procedure did not succeed an argument that I will let stand. There are other ways to throw undesirable people out of your party, usually peer pressure works very well. But that is beholden to the fact that the majority of your members actually want the person gone. For a party that so obviously thrives on left wing ideas as the German Pirates, I find this whole situation perplexing and extremely irritating. Bodo Thiesen was my first tangible reason never to vote them.

Then there was the whole incest debate. Basically, the German Pirate Party opposed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights which had said that the German ban on sex between siblings is legal. The statements by Pirate Party officials in this case were so eye-watering and obviously devoid of any scientific grasp of the medical and biological facts surrounding the issues that I lost almost all of my remaining confidence in the party. Please note that I am opposing the Pirate Party decision not out of some misguided prudery but because there is serious evidence, both based in historical research and biological science, to suggest that siblings having offspring together is a very bad idea. And anyone who tells me that this case was just about sex, not having offspring, should look at teenage pregnancy rates and ponder really hard if we should leave such a decision up to the potential parents. And I haven’t even addressed the psychological issues that the children would face yet. No, I can not vote for a party that publishes statements like the one in this case without consulting with some party members that actually know what they are talking about in the area that is being debated. The Pirate Party obviously is not in a habit of doing that since there is no other way I can possibly think of to explain its erratic decisions in situations like this. And this wasn’t the only time I have seen such unpredictable behaviour. Which brings me to my biggest point of contention with the Pirate Party.

I have come to understand over the past few months that my biggest problem with this party is their fascination with direct democratic action and referendums. Maybe it is down to me having studied history for way too long, but I’m not a fan of direct democracy at all. From 1789 onwards it has been proven again and again that this approach does not work. Especially not in a country with more than 80 million inhabitants. There is a reason that the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany is structured the way it is: because it generally works. It has always been in fashion to complain about how it doesn’t work, of course, but I’m not buying the claim that the alternative which the Pirate Party is presenting is better. The party seems to have a tendency of wanting to change things just for the benefit of changing things, which I find extremely short sighted and naive. Let me be blunt and as clear as possible: People are generally stupid. The bigger of a subsection of the population you sample, the lower the average intelligence will be. We do not really want all of these people to have a direct say in the general policy making of our country on a mere whim. That is the last thing I want, in fact. Our country actually benefits from having certain barriers in place that limit the decision making process within the political system to a relatively small number of individuals. It always has. This might not be a popular opinion, especially with those believing in a perfect world and the basic goodness within every member of society, but I believe that it is the truth. You might think me an abhorrent elitist because I believe these things, but I am willing to accept that verdict. That is, essentially, what the detailed study of history, politics and sociology will do to a person. You start to recognise why certain patterns exist in our governance structures. It isn’t all “the man keepig us down.” The Pirate Party with all their online platforms and wikis will soon discover, and to a certain extend they have seen this already, that direct democracy doesn’t scale. You can’t apply an open source software development model to a political party. That isn’t how things work.

I am not saying that our political system is perfect. Far from it. But I will always vote for the boring party that actually proposes sane policies over the exiting one that is en vogue because it wants to change everything. Right now, the German Pirate Party is all talk and no action. The new head of the organisation has recently even doubted that he is fit to lead the party because “all that power might change him”. This from a party that is not actually involved in a single administration within Germany and only has relatively few seats in a few parliaments on the most local level of government. Power? Your attitude might change if you ever attain actual leverage, but your party is so unpredictable right now that it is impossible for me to say what you will do in the next two months, let alone five years. So no, I am afraid I won’t vote Pirate in the foreseeable future. Let’s revisit this decision when the Pirate Party has made some actual decisions under circumstances that are, in fact, important.

I did like the Pirate Party when it was a feisty bunch of upstarts, too idealistic for their own good, fighting for intelligent ideas. Right now it is a populistic mess filled with people of incredible hubris who do themselves exactly what they so often protest the “traditional” parties do: talk a lot of talk without actually walking the walk.

Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

May 9th, 2012 at 11:14 am

Welcome to Blurmany

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Germany is starting to become a really weird place. The current focus on privacy, especially in the mainstream media, could probably be more accurately described as an obsession and I basically had to stop reading articles from German authors about the topic as they would quickly drive me into a state of angry disillusionment with this country. Privacy in itself is a good thing. As our constitution asserts, it is a prerequisite for personal freedom and the well-being of democratic states. But in the current discussion here in Germany, the term “privacy” is being used to excuse an irrational fear of the public. It seems to me that people are afraid of publicness when it comes to the Internet in a way that does not at all equate to their behaviour when it comes to publicness in the rest of their lives. It also seems to be a phenomenon that is mostly generation specific, with most people being born after  roughly 1985 not caring about these mostly sensationalistic media reports at all. But even with older people, it seems to be very prevalent to regularly use one’s Facebook account but to complain about privacy matters anyway.

Privacy is an ethic of knowing — We need protection of privacy. We also need to adapt our norms of privacy to new social tools and behaviors so we can better understand when something is said in confidence, when information should not be used without consent, what the harm is of spreading information, and how to give people more control of their information.

~ Jeff Jarvis

The weird thing about Germany in this regard is the fact that Germans, by nature, are very trustworthy and obedient when it comes to the state being in possession of a lot of information about them but they are inherently paranoid when it comes to their fellow citizens having the same kind of access to information. To understand this, you need to understand the fact that obeying state organs has been a cornerstone of the German way of life since the nation was founded in 1871. This focus on obedience had always been widespread in the Prussian kingdom and its various holdings and when Bismarck united the German kingdoms under the Prussian banner, this trait was deeply integrated into the organisation and lifestyle of the new German nation. Germany has had state-issued ID cards for decades and citizens are required by law to produce them on request of state officials. The system does make it a lot easier for citizens to identify themselves for official business such as buying real estate or opening bank accounts and it has been in place for so long that almost nobody questions its usefulness. Moreover, when the German government recently enacted a census, people gave the state extremely granular information about their property as well as their circumstances of life and very few people objected to this. The federal government threatened serious punishments for house owners not supplying information such as size of their property, number of people living there, their ages and income and much more. And this information was collected in addition to the huge amounts of facts the government already has about every German citizen as part of the mandatory registration procedures and tax information. All this happened without a single pundit complaining about it in the media. But when Google wants to take a simple photo of people’s houses, all hell breaks loose. Analysing these reactions, it seems that the typically German cry for privacy is very much targeted at corporations, with citizens being a lot more trusting towards state officials. This gets mixed up with a general fear of publicness itself that Jeff Jarvis talks about at length. Maybe I am not German enough, but I completely fail to see how Google making a picture of the outside of my house available to the public is an invasion of my privacy. All that Google is doing is making publicly accessible information more accessible. After all, anyone could drive up to my house and take the same picture from the street themselves. They could even publish that picture on the Internet, completely legally, as it was taken from a public road. German courts have consistently held that you do not have an expectation of privacy if the outside of your home is viewable directly from a public street. Now, the inside of one’s home is a completely different matter, of course, as that is explicitely protected by the constitution. But I fail to see how Street View is doing anything that could even remotely be considered as infringing on people’s privacy. If you are in public, you do not have an expectation of privacy. The whole outcry over Street View makes as much sense as running around the town square stark naked and then trying to sue someone who took a picture of your privates while you were waving them in the wind. The world is completely right to make fun of us by calling the country Blurmany these days.

Myself, I am a lot more sceptical of the government than I am of corporations. While corporations are immoral and would do anything for the bottom line, their dependence on their customers to generate money usually keeps them somewhat in check and prevents the worst abuses of personal data. A government, even of a democratic country under the rule of law, potentially lacks these checks and balances in fundamental ways. With governments, the bureaucracy collects all of the personal information of the citizens, usually completely independent of the ruling administration. With the people in power, who are directly accountable to the voters, coming an going, the bureaucrats are around much longer and information, once collected by the state, tends to pile up and stick around as well. It also worries me that while at its core, data collected by initiatives such as Street View are inherently public and available to the government and citizens alike, almost all data collected by the state is proprietary. Most people confuse this situation with adequate privacy but it only means that the public can’t spy on you, not that you actually possess any real privacy. The more I think about this, the more I am becoming convinced that for most Germans, this whole story is not about privacy at all. It is about arbitrarily limiting access to their private information. Or more specifically, having the illusion that such a limit exists. Most people seem to prefer to have certain information about, say their house, rather be available to a small circle of people, say within the government, than have it available to the public. But that is not what privacy is about. You only have a reasonable expectation of privacy if you can completely control who exactly has access to the information in question — and you definitely do not have this control when you hand your data over to state organs. It seems counterintuitive, but in many ways, companies are a lot more accountable and transparent than the state when it comes to how they handle our personal information. There is no privacy policy in place at the governmental offices where I have to register when I move to a new city. And even if there were, the government has the power to change any such rules at a whim. I can also not opt-out from the national ID card system. Therefore I completely fail to see what the fuss is about when Google harvests SSIDs that the owners of the access points are blasting into the street unencrypted, compared to the data the government forces me to hand over to them.

Publicness is an ethic of sharing — The foundation of a more public society is the principle of sharing: recognizing the benefits of generosity, building tools that facilitate it, and protecting the product of it.

~ Jeff Jarvis

The problem with this irrational fear of being public which is perpetuated through the conventional media, amplifying the inherent distrust of corporations and institutions that are enabling sharing (especially on the Internet), is the fact that the general populace is losing sight of the benefits of publicness and sharing. Jarvis has talked about these benefits often, and indeed, has written a whole book on the subject, going into much detail on the conflict between privacy and publicness. Right now, the pendulum is swinging wildly towards the privacy side of the argument in Germany, a movement which seems unlikely to stop any time soon. It seems to be mostly driven by the fact that the Internet is a new thing with the natural German reaction being to distrust all things new and assume the worst. Sadly, that reaction is harming all of us and society in general every day, the net effect being that many extremely useful online services are being neutered within the country for reasons that elude any logical explanation while people happily bend over whenever the state wants to exert more power over their lives and curb their personal freedoms. In this weird country, taking pictures of the outside of your house produces a huge public uproar, when it seems completely acceptable for the police to infect people’s computers with malware with little due process, all the while storing huge amounts of personal information about you every time you connect to the Internet on the mere assumption that anyone could be guilty. Welcome to Blurmany — what a strange place we have built ourselves here…

Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

February 13th, 2012 at 3:51 am

LiMux Reports Success

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LiMux, the project that aimed to convert the local government of the city of Munich to Linux, has reported that it has exceeded its initial expectations.

The project has done slightly better than projections of 8,500 and now boasts 9,000 Linux migrated workstations. LiMux is the name of both the migration project and a specialized Linux distribution. The LiMux distro, which is based on Ubuntu, is certified by the German government for use in both government institutions and private businesses.

A lot of attempts at large migrations to open source software seem to be so focused on the software and hardware that they tend to forget the other other important factor: people. Forgetting to win over the staff seems to be a common trait of migration projects that fail to accomplish their goals. From 2008 onwards, the LiMux team began to adopt a more considered approach to migration, beginning with smaller deployments and lots of data gathering in order to gauge success. Overall, it’s good news and a project worth studying by anyone interested in large scale migrations to Linux.

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Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

January 15th, 2012 at 4:52 pm

AVM Case: German Courts Defends the GPL in Landmark Decision

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In a very important decision, a regional court in Berlin has denied AVM’s request to prevent users from modifying their device firmware under the GPL.

AVM was essentially trying to stop Cybits from modifying GNU GPL licensed Free Software inside of their AVM Fritz!Box products. Yesterday, the court dismissed this principal claim. Thus, it also confirmed that users of embedded devices with pre-installed Free Software have the legal freedom to make, install, run and distribute modifications to this Free Software. The Free Software Foundation Europe and gpl-violations.org, both welcome this decision.

It is clear that the court rejected AVM’s claims according to which no third party shall be permitted to alter their products’ firmware, even if the GNU GPL components are concerned. Thus, Cybits or anyone else may perform such modifications. Furthermore, under the judgement, Cybits is not prohibited from distributing its software that assists users in making and installing modifications to GNU GPL licensed software (Linux kernel used in the Fritz!Box device).

“I am extremely pleased that the court turned down any request by AVM to control any modification to the GNU GPL licensed components of the Fritz!Box firmware. Enabling and encouraging everyone to innovate based on existing software and products is a key aspect of the Free Software movement.”, says Harald Welte, founder of gpl-violations.org and third party intervener on behalf of Cybits in the dispute.

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Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

November 16th, 2011 at 3:02 am

It Looks Like Apfelkind is in for a Tough Fight

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I had reported earlier on the fact that Apple is threatening to sue a café called Apfelkind here in Bonn because of their logo and that the owner of Apfelkind had decided to fight Apple’s claims. Now it looks like she might be in for a harder fight then we had originally thought as it seems Apple has registered the mark “The Apple Cafe” in Germany in 1996:

Link to German source article

I still think Apple’s claim that there could be market confusion is bogus, not least of all because even while Apple has registered the trademark, to the best of my knowledge, they haven’t actually ever used it or are planning to. But I am not a lawyer and I have no idea if that argument would actually be worth anything in court. I think we will just have to wait and see how this plays out, unless of course the owner of Apfelkind folds in light of these new developments.

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Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

November 6th, 2011 at 7:28 am

Apple Threatens Small, Family-Run Café Over Trademark

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Apple is threatening to sue a small, family run café in Bonn because they are of the opinion that their logo infringes on Apple’s trademark. The owner of the café Apfelkind, Christin Römer, has registered her logo as a trademark for the service and fashion industry in June in Munich. Now Apple is claiming in a cease and desist letter that there could be confusion between the small café in Bonn and their global entertainment brand.

The owners of Apfelkind (which is German for “apple child”) are currently deciding if they will change their logo but they have filed a legal letter with Apple disputing the technology giant’s claim of confusion and the fact that Apfelkind is infringing on Apple Inc.’s trademark.

Follow #Apfelkind on Google+ for more information. See also: original German article.

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Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

October 21st, 2011 at 8:42 am

Chaos Computer Club Analyses German Federal Malware

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The German white hat hacking organisation Chaos Computer Club has gotten access to what they believe is the infamous Bundestrojaner malware and proceeded to analyse it:

In Germany, the use of computer malware to manipulate a citizen’s computer is prohibited by a 2008 ruling of the Constitutional Court. However, under wiretapping laws authorities are allowed to use software in order to intercept Internet telephony. The CCC claims the trojan it analyzed, which it has dubbed “Bundestrojaner” (the federal trojan), is software designed by the government to intercept VoIP calls. However, its functionality extends much beyond that. ”The malware can not only siphon away intimate data but also offers a remote control or backdoor functionality for uploading and executing arbitrary other programs,” the CCC warns. Security researchers from antivirus vendor Sophos have confirmed that the trojan has the ability to monitor Skype, MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger communications, to log keystrokes in Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer and Seamonkey, to take screenshots of the computer screen and to record Skype calls.

However, neither Sophos nor F-Secure, another antivirus company that analyzed the trojan, can confirm that it was created by the German government. Regardless of whether the trojan was created for lawful interception or not, both companies claim that their policy for it is the same – detect and remove. Sophos and F-Secure detect this trojan as “R2D2.A”, a name derived from a string found in the malware’s code.

However, an even more concerning issue is the fact that, according to the CCC, the trojan is full of vulnerabilities that could be exploited to take control of computers infected with it. ”We were surprised and shocked by the lack of even elementary security in the code. Any attacker could assume control of a computer infiltrated by the German law enforcement authorities,” commented a CCC spokesperson. “The security level this trojan leaves the infected systems in is comparable to it setting all passwords to ’1234′,” they added.

See also: German source story on Heise.

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Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

October 10th, 2011 at 10:32 am

Germany Curbs Civil Rights Due to “Facebook Parties”

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Several German federal states, including North Rhine-Westphalia, want to pass legislation to curb the citizen’s rights to Versammlungsfreiheit (Freedom of assembly, which is a constitutional right in Germany according to §8 GG) because of the recent, so-called “Facebook parties” that have become a meme country-wide.

This is a very worrying trend because it restricts non-political, relatively ad hoc assemblies which would be a precedent in German law. Usually, only political assemblies and professional events have to be cleared with authorities. These new laws would possibly make it illegal to only invite somebody to a certain place at a certain time. Furthermore, it is not clear if only Facebook will be subject to this law or if all modern ways of communicating like SMS, email, IM messages etc. will be affected.

NRW Interior Minister Ralf Jäger (SPD) said:

“If, in advance of an announced Facebook party, there are concrete indications of a danger to the participants or third parties, then it is the duty of the local authorities to ban the party.”

Jäger seems to be unclear how danger is defined in this context and how many people have to come together for a party to become “dangerous”. I think we will sooner or later see the dark spectre of terrorism appear on the stage here…

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Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

July 4th, 2011 at 4:06 am

AVM Attacking the Very Foundations of Free Software

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German DSL hardware manufacturer AVM, makers of the popular FRITZ!Box devices, is suing another company in Berlin because they were changing the firmware on AVM’s routers, including the Linux kernel. This means AVM is trying to deny others their rights under the GPL which in turn means AVM (which uses Linux itself) is in violation of the license. The FSFE and Harald Welte of gpl-violations.org have joined forces to fight AVM in this case.

The adversaries in the case are the manufacturer and distributor of DSL routers AVM Computersysteme Vertriebs GmbH (AVM), and Cybits AG (Cybits) which produces children’s web-filtering software. Both companies use the Linux kernel. The case was brought to court by AVM with the aim of preventing Cybits from changing any parts of the firmware used in AVM’s routers, including the Linux kernel. The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) and gpl-violations.org consider AVM’s action as a broad attack against the principles of Free Software, and thus against the thousands of individuals and companies developinging, improving and distributing Free Software.

AVM claimed that when their customers install Cybits’ filtering software on AVM routers it changes the routers’ firmware and consequently infringes on AVM’s copyright. In the opinion of AVM, even changing the Linux kernel components of the firmware is not allowed. The Court of Appeals of Berlin rejected this argument in its decision on the request for a preliminary injunction in September 2010, after Mr. Welte intervened in the case. Now, the District Court of Berlin will have to decide on the issue again, this time in the main proceedings.

If AVM succeeds in forbidding others from exercising the freedoms explicitly granted by the GNU General Public License terms, it will directly contravene the legal rights of the original authors of the programs, who decided that software freedom and cooperation is more important to them than directly receiving license fees.

“AVM is attacking the very foundations of Free Software: They want to take away freedom from others. We have to act when a company sues others for executing their right to modify Free Software. AVM’s behaviour must not be tolerated. If they are successful in court it will be disastrous for the global market for embedded devices, which includes mobile phones, network hardware, and other Linux based products” says Matthias Kirschner, FSFE’s German Coordinator.

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Written by Fabian A. Scherschel

June 20th, 2011 at 4:47 am