Child porn law sparks web censorship debate

An attempt to tighten German laws against online child pornography has sparked resistance from some Social Democrats and its intended enforcers.

Child porn law sparks web censorship debate
Photo: DPA

The bill, due to be voted on later Thursday, will give the government the right to censor internet sites that distribute child pornography. Internet service providers will be required to restrict access to such sites and surfers trying to call up web pages on the government’s watch list will encounter an online stop sign warning them of the consequences of going further.

The proposed law championed by Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who belongs to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats, has proven controversial because it empowers the federal criminal police (BKA) to decide which sites are dangerous and which aren’t. The list of sites would also remain secret.

Critics of the plan say it gives the government too much power and won’t really address the problem of child pornography. Von der Leyen dismissed those accusations in a speech before parliament Thursday.

“It’s cynical to speak to censorship in relation to this case, then the rape of children will be accessible in the mass media,” she said in her speech. Restricting access to the sites is simply a measure that only has a “preventative character,” she said, that won’t affect ordinary internet users.

But some in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the centre-left junior coalition partner of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are uncomfortable with the proposed law. Hessian SPD head Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel said the bill will do nothing to stop the circulation of child porn and will “make the party unelectable for the digital generation,” in a letter he wrote to the SPD’s leadership.

Obtained by the website of Der Spiegel magazine, the letter lambasted the proposal.

“The citizens’ fears that this mechanism will be misused, is, in light of the many demands to expand the number of sites to close, highly justifiable. Independent of the intentions of the lawmakers is the danger that courts will apply an already-completed censorship structure to other crimes,” continued Schäfer-Gümbel.

Peter Schaar, the government’s privacy commissioner who would oversee the BKA’s efforts to close child porn sites, was also critical of the measure.

“It has nothing to do with my responsibilities to ensure the freedom of information and electronic privacy,” Schaar said in an interview with the daily Berliner Zeitung.

The opposition parties in parliament have all expressed their resistance to the plan, meaning that the CDU needs the support of the SPD and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union for the measure to pass.

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EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Germany is known for having some of the world’s strictest gun laws, but shooting incidents continue to cause concern.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about gun laws in Germany

Is it difficult to get a gun in Germany?

To get a gun in Germany you firstly have to obtain a firearms ownership license (Waffenbesitzkarte) – and you may need a different one for each weapon you buy – or a license to carry (Waffenschein).

Applicants for a license must be at least 18-years-old and undergo what’s called a reliability check. This includes checking for criminal records, whether the person is an alcohol or drug addict, whether they have a mental illness or any other attributes that might make them owning a gun a potential concern for authorities.

They also have to pass a “specialised knowledge test” on guns and people younger than 25 applying for their first license must go through a psychiatric evaluation.

Crucially, applicants must also prove a specific and approved “need“ for the weapon, which is mainly limited to use by hunters, competitive marksmen, collectors and security workers – not for self-defence.

Once you have a license, you’re also limited in the number of and kinds of guns you may own, depending on what kind of license you have: Fully automatic weapons are banned for everyone, while semiautomatic firearms are banned for anything other than hunting or competitive shooting.

A revolver lies on an application for the issuance of a firearms license. Photo: picture alliance / Carsten Rehder/dpa | Carsten Rehder

How many legal guns are there in Germany? 

According to the latest figures from the Federal Ministry of the Interior, as of May 31st, 2022, there were 5.018,963 registered guns in Germany, and 946,546 gun owners entered in the National Weapons Register (NWR).

Where are the most guns in Germany?

Most legal guns are found in rural areas and are used in hunting or shooting sports. Guns are also more widespread in the western States than in the states that make up the former East Germany, where private gun ownership was extremely limited. 

READ ALSO: German prosecutors say poaching led to double police murder

What about undocumented guns in Germany?

One problem in Germany is so-called ‘old’ weapons. It’s impossible to estimate how many weapons from the two world wars are still in circulation and such antiques have appeared in a number of high-profile incidents in the last few years.

The pistol hidden in a Vienna airport by Bundeswehr officer Franco A was a Unique pistol from 1917 and the 2007 murder of a police officer in Heilbronn involved a Wehrmacht pistol. 

In 2009, around 200,000 weapons were returned in a gun amnesty, but it is still unclear how many illegal weapons are still out there.

Does Germany have a gun violence problem?

Gun crime is relatively rare in Germany, which has some of the strictest gun laws in Europe and, according to the latest figures from the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), gun-related crimes in Germany are decreasing.

In 2021, there were 9.8 percent fewer crimes committed with a firearm than the previous year, while the number of cases recorded by the police in which a firearm was used to threaten fell by 11.2 percent. Shots were fired in 4,074 of the total number of recorded cases, down 8.5 percent from 2021.

An armored weapons cabinet filled with long guns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Friso Gentsch

Despite this, there have been several mass shootings within the past two decades, which have had a big impact on public consciousness and on gun control policy. 

Between 2002 and 2009 there were three major incidents of young men carrying out shootings at their former high schools and, in 2020, a racially motivated gunman shot and killed 11 people and injured numerous others in an attack on two shisha bars in Hanau. The perpetrator was allowed to legally possess firearms, although he had previously sent letters with right-wing extremist content to authorities.

Recently there were also shootings at Heidelberg University in southwestern Germany and at a supermarket in Schwalmstadt in Hesse.

Are German gun laws about to change?

The German parliament reacted to the mass shooting incidents in the early 2000s by tightening the gun laws, and, in the wake of the Hanau attack, a new amendment is in the works, which aims to shift focus towards monitoring gun owners with extremist, right-wing views.

READ ALSO: Germany marks a year since deadly racist shooting in Hanau

In December 2021, Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) announced her intention to further tighten gun laws, as part of a plan to tackle right-wing extremism.

The authorities in charge of the protection of the constitution have been warning for some time that neo-Nazis are deliberately joining shooting clubs to obtain guns and the Federal Ministry of the Interior reports that 1.500 suspected right-wing extremists among legal gun owners.

Campaigners say more needs to be done to stop gun crime. 

Dagmar Ellerbrock, a historian and expert on weapons history at the Technical University of Dresden said: “It is high time that we try to at least make it more difficult for these political groups to find their way through the shooting associations.”