Wired has one of the better stories I’ve seen about Germany’s laws that forbid the distribution of hate literature. Such laws are coming into conflict with the free wheeling Internet. Germany went after Amazon.Com for selling Mein Kampf to German citizens, and now a Munich prosecutor is investigating Yahoo! sold copies of the book to German citizens.
Some in Germany simply want racist, xenophobic, and/or hate literature to be banned outright on the Internet. Here’s a quote from Michael Friedman, who Wired describes as a leader of Germany’s Jewish population, to that effect.
We believe that the distribution of anti-Semitic, racist and xenophobic literature through Internet services has to be forbidden. The case of Yahoo in France showed us that in the next weeks and months there will be a new view in Europe on that. There must be a new legal structure in which distribution of hate literature is not allowed. I believe that this is a global, humanitarian message that hate literature is not distributed.
Now the German state is quick to point out that it does not actually ban the sale of Mein Kampf. Rather, the sale of such books are restricted to the right people. Here’s a German Justice Ministry spokesman explaining how this works,
If you go to a bookshop, the bookseller can have a look at you and decide if you are really interested, like if you are a student. It’s not the book that’s forbidden, it’s selling it to everyone. If you sell it through the Internet, you don’t know who wants to buy the book; you give it to everybody, and that’s forbidden.
Or as another Justice Ministry spokesman told Wired, “It’s a criminal offense to sell it to persons who are interested in Nazi things and symbols. It’s a problem of the different standards. I know that Mein Kampf is sold in the U.S., but it can’t be sold here. The Internet makes it possible for everyone to get it. So you have to talk about standards and find a way of dealing with it.”
So the German state essentially turns booksellers into mind readers. If you look like you might be a white supremacist, forget it — you’re not going to be able to buy the book. On the other hand, if you look like a nice respectable anti-Fascist, no problem.
And some Germans apparently want this sort of standard to apply to the Internet. Thanks, but no thanks.
Putting the state in charge of determining who can and cannot read books in an attempt to combat fascism is absurd. Censorship and the classification of people into “correct” and “incorrect” categories is at the heart of fascism and other totalitarian political systems.
Moreover, the laws clearly don’t work. I can think of dozens of ways to get around this law, as I’m sure right wing hate groups in Germany have. In addition, Germany and France (which has similar laws) have both been the scene of some of the most right wing violence in Europe. The laws against hate literature have done little to prevent a small minority of dedicated hate mongers.
In the long run, the way to stop racism, xenophobia and other irrational ideas is to move toward more openness in a society rather than restrictions and censorship of the “wrong” ideas. Strengthening the state and state control will almost certainly backfire. Europeans seemed in shock at the electoral victory of right wing extremists in Austria, but the right wingers there have the left-liberals to thank for preserving the strong state and keeping Europeans used to censorship.