Germans Protecting Germans

You may remember a while back I did a series of posts on how Mozilla was protecting Germans by going after the operators of “subscription trap” websites based in Germany. I’m pleased to say that the German government has now joined the fight.

A few days ago, the German Ministry of Justice passed a legislative proposal (PDF; link in German) for an amendment to the German Civil Code. The title is “Draft Law for the enhanced protection of consumers against online subscription traps”.

Here’s the first paragraph:

Many consumers use the Internet to obtain information in an easy manner or to make use of cost-free services such as downloads of freeware. In doing so, they often fall victim to so called cost- or subscription traps (…) Shady undertakings intentionally conceal the fact that they charge for their services by means of a confusing or misleading presentation of their websites. For example, an offer on such a website will be praised, in a graphically highlighted form, as “free”, while only in the small print, or hidden in the General Terms and Conditions, is information provided about the costs of the provided services. This information is moreover often provided in small or pale print, hidden in a footnote or will only become visible on the computer screen after the consumer has scrolled further down. Consumers can therefore only recognise with difficulty that a service that is at first sight cost-free will result in costs after all.

That’s the problem in a nutshell.

When the law passes, persons or entities making commercial offers to consumers online which require payment will be required to do two things:

  1. Show a clearly visible, highlighted notice about all costs the consumer will incur when making use of the offer; and
  2. Make it so that, before contracting, the consumer actively has to confirm that he has read the cost information.

If a website does not satisfy these requirements, the contract will be void.

This proposal will now be introduced into the German “Bundestag” (the “lower House of Parliament”). Once it has been approved by the lower chamber, it will then need approval from the “Bundesrat” (the Federal Assembly, or “upper House of Parliament”). That may take approx 6 months. Our German contacts say the motion has strong support, so it is rather unlikely that it won’t become law. However, it could be amended along the way.

7 thoughts on “Germans Protecting Germans

  1. First there was the license agreement

    Then there was the Privacy Terms

    Now there are the financial terms

    What other forms of non-agreement will we have to swear ourselves to as customers?

    I agree that hiding price and features of a transaction is A) unethical, B) unfair and C) downright stupid. However, I have gotten very skeptical when governments begin trying to make businesses do the right thing. I don’t know about Germany, but the country where I live has embedded the very things that this law proposes to prevent into its tax structure. If Germany, or any country tries to implement a law like this and practices this behavior, then what you would end up with is something like the current privacy laws, where you may not divulge any information except in the following list of situations to organizations that are supposedly trustworthy, except that in many cases those are the very organizations that we would rather not show what we were thinking.

    Now, you have to post your prices up front unless you are doing ____ and ____ or ____.

    I hope this turns out better than I fear.

  2. Layton, the government is the very entity that will prosecute you once you are unwilling to fulfill your side of a contract. You are okay with government having the power to detain you, but not with government helping you to make informed decisions? Hmm, maybe I just misunderstood you.

    Anyway, this is fabulous news for all Germans, far too long have we accepted those robbers to enrich themselves on the backs of the less internet savvy.

  3. Sounds to me as an “… on the internet”-law. That is, isn’t it already illegal to advertise a product or service in a physical store as “free”, if it in fact isn’t?

  4. Bundesrat(h) is Federal Council, not Assembly (That is something different, that elects the President).

  5. Sounds to me like this should fall under the jurisdiction of the court system and the civil fraud laws. A statute shouldn’t be needed for something so obvious.

  6. @Kadir: I just find it terribly irratating that some governments require a standard of behavior from their citizens that they themselves are immune to. Their special protection is often set up in the very legislation that requires their citizens to behave properly. The problem I have is not with the government punishing evil doers. That is their job. The problem I have is when the government becomes the evil doer. If you are in doubt about what I mean, take the time to read some of these “privacy” policies. Most of them are written in a way that my sister or my children can barely get access to information that they might need in an emergency situation. On the other hand, some government office can decide they need some information, and I have already agreed to let them have it without so much as requiring them to show any reason why they might need it. Do we really trust our governments that much?

    @Havvy: What you say is probably true. However, the truth is that the Internet tends to be an international entity, and it can be difficult to get another country to cooperate with your country on some little civil case.

  7. This sort of thing _theoretically_ should be covered under standard fraud and truth-in-advertising laws, none of which should need to be specific to the web. Theoretically.

    It’s true, however, that legal stuff can sometimes get complicated in ways that don’t make sense to the laity.

    Layton:
    > Do we really trust our governments that much?

    We kind of have to. I mean, they’re the government. They’re the ones deciding what’s legal and what’s illegal, what rights and privileges we have or don’t have, what wars we fight or don’t fight, and so on and so forth. If they turn against us, we’re in serious trouble. The government, fundamentally, is where the power is vested. If the power is in the hands of something (or someone) you don’t trust, you’ve got a big problem.

    If we find that they’re abusing it *too* much, we could attempt to revolt and establish a different government, but then we’d have to trust *that* government with the power, so even if we succeed (*after* the unpleasantness of the revolution), there’s a limit to how much better off we’d be. And believe me, you *don’t* want to live in a place with effectively no government. That’s extremely unpleasant. So you’ve got to have a government, some entity that you trust with the power to govern the nation. At minimum, somebody’s got to have enough power to punish crime domestically and repel invaders at the borders. You have to trust *someone* with that power.

    This is not to say that you have to completely trust every individual person in the government. Most modern nations try to set up the government in a way that limits the power any one person can obtain, so that one stinker can’t easily plunge the whole country into old-school “if you do carry out my every whim and fancy and pretend to like it I will execute your entire extended family in an obviously painful fashion, desecrate your corpses, and have your houses turned into piles of rubble” tyranny. But at some level you still have to trust the government, even if part of what you are trusting is the system of checks and balances that exist to prevent the most severe abuses.