Germany has become the first country in the world to tax private personal computers that are deemed to be “Internet-capable”.
The plan, long in the offing, was agreed in Berlin by the Conference of Prime Ministers of the Federal States of Germany on October 8. It is being billed as part of the expansion of the television and radio public services fee, which is administered by Germany’s Radio and Television Licensing Authority and enforced by the universally despised Gebühreneinzugszentrale (GEZ), which often resorts to controversial and illegal Gestapo-like methods of gathering information on private citizens.
The new tax was originally planned to come into effect on January 1, 2007. That date still holds for businesses and large corporations, but private households will be forced to register their PCs before the deadline of March 31, 2005. Owners must then pay 17.03 euros a month for their PC unless they are already complying with the full GEZ tax for a registered television and radio.
The decision has provoked howls of protest from the nation’s estimated one million Internet users who have eschewed the trashy sensationalism and state propaganda associated with the public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, both of which argue that their websites constitute a public service that Internet users are accessing free of charge. Technically speaking, they say in addition, anyone with an Internet-capable PC (whether actually connected to the Internet or not) can theoretically watch their broadcasts.
“With the same argument, the public broadcast services can demand from me a fee for the existence of my briefcase, because in principle it may contain an ARD television magazine that provides free viewing tips,” says Arndt Groth, President of the Federal Association of Digital Businesses (BVDW). Groth’s comments, among others, have had lawyers frantically scanning the German Constitution for loopholes (notwithstanding the fact that the constitution, along with the Federal Republic of Germany itself, technically ceased to exist as a legal document on July 17, 1990).
Undaunted by the criticism that Germany is effectively nationalising private telecommunications in much the same way as Hitler did during his long reign of terror and in a style reminiscent of the taxes imposed on typewriters by the Communist Party in the former totalitarian German Democratic Republic, the Federal Minister for Culture, Christiane Weiss, has also signalled her intention of subjecting Internet-capable mobile phones to the new tax.
“Cultural sovereignty is not to be interfered with,” she warned owners of PCs and mobile phones who may consider taking the matter to the European Courts. In a lengthy communications directive issued at the end of September, she defended the massive state subsidies to public broadcasters against advocates of a more free-market approach to the German media, implicitly threatening the EU’s monopoly regulator with non-cooperation should a hearing be convened.
Tax-weary citizens who fail to pay the GEZ imposition or register a television or radio are liable to pay crippling fines amounting to thousands of euros and even face lengthy prison sentences. By law, individuals and businesses resident in Germany must register every television, video-recorder, DVD-player, radio, car radio and radio alarm-clock that they own, regardless as to their state of repair.
That list will surely grow longer once hectored members of the public have been goose-stepped into registering their personal computers and mobile phones for fear of the GEZ knock on the door.
Mike James is a British freelance journalist and translator, resident in Germany for over 12 years.