Could German anti-terrorism laws shut down Gmail?

New regulations limiting online anonymity may force Google to close its e-mail service for German users.

By Farhad Manjoo

Published June 25, 2007 4:21PM (EDT)

According to a German magazine article that comes to me through several bloggy translations, Google is considering shutting down Gmail for German users if the German government enforces a strict new anti-terrorism law that limits anonymity online. The story is a bit fuzzy because at the moment, no one -- including Google and German government officials -- seems quite sure how the new law would change operations at e-mail companies operating in Germany. But according to one interpretation, the measure would force firms to collect real-world records -- names, addresses, telephone numbers -- of their customers. It's that scenario that bothers Google, and as a last resort, the company says, it would shut down German Gmail rather than comply.

"Many users around the globe make use of this anonymity to defend themselves from spam, or government repression of free speech," Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, told the magazine WirtschaftsWoche. He added that it's ineffective for a single country to adopt Internet restrictions because users can always go around them and use e-mail providers in other countries. It goes without saying, of course, that terrorists can do the same.

The Google-following blogger Philipp Lenssen argues that Google should be applauded for upholding online freedom. He's right. But it's hard not to add this caveat: Except in China. A year ago, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt traveled to Beijing to unveil a new Chinese research center. Asked about Google's decision to limit search engine results in accordance with Chinese censors -- that is, in accordance with China's "government repression of free speech," as Fleischer calls it -- Schmidt took a strong stand: "We believe that the decision that we made to follow the law in China was absolutely the right one," he said. Schmidt added: "I think it's arrogant for us to walk into a country where we are just beginning to operate and tell that country how to operate."

In the long run, offering a search engine to China will prove a lot more lucrative for Google than offering e-mail to Germany. Sometimes taking a stand against government repression is too costly even for Google.

[From WirtschaftsWoche, Heise Online and Google Blogoscoped.]

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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