June 29, 2007 | By Hugh D'Andrade

Google's German Webmail Threatened by Proposed Legislation

Germany?s Federal Ministry of Justice has circulated a controversial draft bill (here in German only) that is bad news for online privacy. From preliminary reports it seems that it attempts to outlaw the ability to send anonymous email by ordering ISPs to retain data traceable to individuals, and requiring a passport from anyone attempting to set up a webmail account.

Notably, Google is already pushing back. The German paper Heise reports that Google has threatened to shut down its email service in Germany if the bill becomes law (though this may be overstating the case). And Google Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer has come to the defense of anonymous communication, describing the many legitimate scenarios in which a person might want an anonymous email account:

[T]he dissident who is writing an account of political persecution to be sent to a newspaper abroad; the individual who wants to order something over the internet but doesn?t want to use his office e-mail; or just the ordinary internet user who is concerned about his privacy will all want to consider using an e-mail account which isn?t tied to their particular name or identity. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is no different than sending a letter to someone without putting your return name and address on the envelope.

Besides, Fleischer reminds us, the law will not be able to stop the practice of anonymous email accounts since Germans can always get webmail accounts from providers in other countries.

Google should be commended for fighting this proposal, though we wish that it fought even harder to protect online freedom in jurisdictions across the globe. After all, it wasn?t so long ago that Google bowed to the authoritarian regime in China and agreed to filter and censor its database in order to enter the Chinese market.

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