Hotspot operators are liable for their users...
...according to the so called “disturbance liability“. Until now.
As we are sitting here finishing the next edition of Wave and having just recorded an interview with Chemnitz' Freifunk activists, the grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD suddenly decided to overturn the law making Wi-Fi operators liable for their users. Even the long-discussed info start page for free Wi-Fi hotspots isn't part of the current draft bill anymore.
The Freifunk community should be very pleased with this decision. The huge commitment to the community network, the constantly increasing number of participants and finally the awarding of a Peace Prize have prompted us to take a closer look on Freifunk. We visited organizers in the Harz region, Franconia and Chemnitz and gathered information about the project, the enthusiasm, and the technical implementation.
Freifunk Chemnitz e.V. members are network savvy people, who have been setting up an open and anonymous WLAN in Chemnitz, Central Saxony (e.g. Augustusburg, Frankenberg, Flöha), Erzgebirge e.g. Annaberg-Buchholz, Seiffen, Zschopau) or Zwickau in their spare time since 2011. Everybody can use it to browse or share it with their neighbors - it is open and free for everyone. In order to continually increase the network, everyone can contribute and "open" their own Freifunk node - or just recruit your favorite café.
VARIA: The Chemnitz Peace Prize is awarded every year to honor peacemaking impulses. Why did you receive the prize? What is the connection between Freifunk and a peaceful Chemnitz/Saxony?
Steffen Förster: We received the award in the context of our collaboration with various reception centers for incoming refugees. By means of our network, people could easily use the Internet and connect with their families. Being the biggest source of information, the Internet is a necessity that should be accessible to everyone.
VARIA: What is Freifunk Chemnitz and what were the reasons to found it? Please introduce yourselves.
Steffen Förster: As the third biggest city in Saxony, we thought it was about time we started our own community. Freifunk networks can be found throughout the country and the demand for free Internet access was high, also in Chemnitz. We are not just creating single hotspots, but rather building a large mesh network that is operated independently and in a decentralized manner. This means that individual routers are interconnected via Wi-Fi, so they can distribute the network traffic among each other. This decentralization protects individual connections against failures and ensures a free flow of information.
VARIA: The number of public Wi-Fi hotspots is only slowly increasing and in comparison to other countries, Germany is still lagging far behind. What's the reason for this in your opinion?
Steffen Förster: The answer is simple and is called “disturbance liability”. This means that in case of an abuse, the subscriber is held liable, not the user. So if someone makes their Internet access available to the public and a crime is committed through it, then it's not the perpetrator's fault, but the reliability lies with the owner of the Internet connection. The law regarding “disturbance liability” is only valid in Germany. That's why free Internet access and Wi-Fi hotspots are much more widespread in other countries.
VARIA: The distribution and availability of broadband Internet access is the government’s highest priority according to recent statements. What are the consequences for the expansion of the Freifunk network and its community?
Steffen Förster: The Federal Government demands something that we have tried to establish on our own for more than 10 years now. Through political programs and recent debates, the development of “digital wasteland“ is slowly progressing. We also benefit from it, as we can help shape this development. Some local communities already work with us and prefer a self-organized initiative to a major company like Telekom. The programs of the local and federal government explicitly aim at sustainable and economic solutions as well. Thanks to Freifunk, especially smaller towns and villages get the chance to achieve this goal instead of being dependent on monopolistic providers.
VARIA: What's the current legal uncertainty for the operation of a public Wi-Fi? Is the topic of “disturbance liability“ an issue for you?
Steffen Förster: The already mentioned “disturbance liability” is indeed a big problem for public Wi-Fi operators. The fear of being held liable for someone else's faults is big. However, we found a way to overcome this obstacle. The entire traffic of the routers is directed to our Freifunk servers through a VPN tunnel. Therefore, the single node operator cannot be determined anymore.
VARIA: Do operators of public or Freifunk hotspots have to notify the Federal Network Agency?
Steffen Förster: The operation of a public Wi-Fi infrastructure must be reported if the operator carries on a trade, even if they only break even. That's why we, as a registered association, are registered as an ISP at the Federal Network Agency. Users that install a router at home and join the Freifunk network are not affected by this provision.
VARIA: What are the responsibilities of an operator of a Freifunk hotspot? Are there any risks to consider?
Steffen Förster: The main responsibility of the operator is the physical operation of the device - that is the installation site should be safe; nobody should be hurt by falling routers or antennas. In addition, the operator has to provide electricity, of course, and Internet access if applicable.
VARIA: Just a moment ago you mentioned routing via VPN. Can you describe the implementation of routing via tunnels?
Steffen Förster: Any traffic is transported through our VPN - that's a kind of invisible cable to our servers. There we take care of the further distribution of data packets, so that users get access to the Internet. We have several DHCP and DNS servers in use that are networked together with GRE and BGP. The routers themselves use “fastd“ or “l2tp“ to connect to our infrastructure.
VARIA: Let's move on to the next topic: How big is your network? How many hotspots/supporters do you have?
Steffen Förster: At the moment, there are 280 nodes throughout the city and in some peripheral areas of Chemnitz. With 150 supporters, our community is quite impressive. Our access numbers tell the same story: we currently have up to 600 contemporary users.
VARIA: Which equipment should be used for a Freifunk hotspot?
Steffen Förster: The use doesn't require any specific equipment. All you need is an OpenWRT compatible router. It should have at least 4 MB Flash and 16 MB RAM. This device will be flashed with our own firmware. The software “GLUON“ is developed in collaboration with many Freifunk activists from all over Germany.
VARIA: Who's installing the software on the system? Will the device lose ist warranty?
Source: Philipp Seefeldt of Freifunk Berlin
Steffen Förster: Many future users will get a pre-configured device. This way, the operator only needs to connect the router with the existing Internet connection or another Freifunk router nearby. Technology enthusiasts can also flash the router themselves. The original firmware of the device can be re-installed at any time and the hardware warranty won't expire either.
VARIA: How fast are the connections? What bandwidth can be expected? Will the existing connection be affected?
Steffen Förster: The browsing speed is usually between 5 and 50 MBit/s - depending on the existing Internet connection and router model. Our software enables the operator to provide only a certain part of their bandwidth. This ensures that there is always enough capacity left for the home network.
VARIA: Is it possible to monitor the use of the Freifunk hotspot? Is there any advertising?
Steffen Förster: There is no access to the existing data stream, just as there is no data retention. The user remains completely anonymous. The only thing that is monitored are anonymous usage statistics per router. These are used for evaluating the traffic.
VARIA: Who is liable if a hotspot user is compromised, for example by a virus or a system crash or something similar?
Steffen Förster: The Freifunk routers already offer a certain degree of protection through our VPN. However, the responsibility lies with the user - like with all other hotspots. Therefore, we always recommend using SSL encryption for online banking and similar applications, for example. However, that's often already the case. The traffic itself cannot be protected technically, as it is a free and open access without any password protection.
VARIA: As a short conclusion: Why should I run a Freifunk hotspot?
Steffen Förster: Let me answer this question with an example. Everyone enjoys the amuse-gueule in a good restaurant. This concept is also applicable to digital services. No matter whether it's at home or in a restaurant - free access to the Internet has become a fundamental right and ensures satisfied customers and friends alike.
Thanks to the team at Freifunk for answering our questions!
(Interview and photo: Michael Großfrei)
- Regionally restricted contents (PlayList, YouTube, Zattoo, etc.)
- Modern infrastructure (IPv6, roaming, peerings into other networks, e.g. dn42)
- Anonymity and legal certainty
Legal certainty is ensured by using a VPN software on the nodes. The software ensures that all connections can only be traced back to Freifunk.
Anonymity is provided by the absence of logging within the Freifunk network and the use of a Tor proxy. Within the Network, it is also possible to open every known website specifically via Tor.
Here, you can find a current Wi-Fi map of Chemnitz:
chemnitz.freifunk.net (→ Map)
Account for donations:
Freifunk Chemnitz e.V.
Bank account number: 1017306299
Bank code: 12030000
Deutsche Kreditbank Berlin
Donate at betterplace.org
Support them while shopping online