Grotesque, but who: EFF or a former criminal?

The EFF blog contains a recent article about one German who is trying to sue the Wikipedia Foundation (in the US) in order to enforce that his last name be taken down from – or rather be abbreviated in – the article “Walter Sedlmayr” in which his full name is given in connection with the murder of the Bavarian actor in 1990.

Obviously the convicted murderer who is now looking for reintegration into society is underestimating the well-described Streisand effect. However, I find it rather grotesque that the EFF that stands for a fight for anonymity and privacy should ignore those same ideals when they are to be applied to a former criminal looking for his reintegration into society.

Alright, before I discuss the issues at hand further I should also point out that federal law in Germany forbids the death penalty [1]. Additionally, if a murderer is being released he has the same right as any other former criminal to reintegrate into society. The use of full names in the press after such a release is banned and the person in question has successfully sued parts of the German press for a violation of the respective rules. For example it is without problem to write “John D. and his half-brother Jack B.”, but it is not okay to write “John Doe and his half-brother Jack Bean”. Things are different if the person in question has died already.

Now back to the topic at hand. The EFF claims that it is censorship and that the First Amendment of the US constitution has to be upheld on the Wikipedia servers. In general I agree and free speech is a valuable Human Right. However, the question is what informational value gets added by writing “John Doe” instead of the shortened – and partially anonymized – “John D.”. Apparently the rights for anonymity and privacy of the former criminal – also constitutional rights in Germany (if you consider the Grundgesetz an actual constitution) – are traded off for the right to free speech for a questionable or no added value in this case.

Now one can argue that the English Wikipedia is not the primary information source for most Germans and one can surely argue that the First Amendment is fully valid inside the US. However, the internet is a peculiar agglomerate of technology and has its very own rules. Unlike a newspaper that only gets published somewhere and is only rarely found “outside its native realm” (one exception would be airplanes), the internet can transport all content everywhere, directly onto the screens of the computer users. The EFF argues that similar censorship takes place by China for “Falun Gong” or for criticism of the Thai king under Thai legislation. Wow, now that’s a comparison. “Apples and oranges” it was in English? Only a marginal difference, in German it’s the proverbial “apples and pears”. The head of state of a country and a religion or cult being compared to a single convicted individual and now former criminal. It seems that it all boils down to relevance a very hot topic in the German Wikipedia at the moment.

The EFF states:

At stake is the integrity of history itself. If all publications have to abide by the censorship laws of any and every jurisdiction just because they are accessible over the global internet, then we will not be able to believe what we read, whether about Falun Gong (censored by China), the Thai king (censored under lèse majesté) or German murders. Wikipedia appears ready to fight for write once, read anywhere history, and EFF will be watching this fight closely.
(Source is the EFF article linked above.)

The obvious argument here is that murdering an actor or otherwise “well-known” person is a waiver of privacy and anonymity as otherwise defended by the EFF, even though the society in which the murderer was convicted upholds the idea of reintegration even of murderers if they are deemed fit for society again after their imprisonment (… or punishment). But perhaps the EFF is right. And since the First Amendment of the US constitution is so eagerly defended against the convict in his struggle for reintegration, why not apply another great piece of US legislation to his case. I suggest that the US army invade Germany – oh wait, they are still there – get the murderer, deport him to any US state with death penalty and execute him “according to the rites”. It would be only fair that way, wouldn’t it? … it would also solve the problem from the German point of view, because “a deceased” doesn’t have personal rights or Human Rights anymore.

Reintegration cannot work if the former criminal is not allowed a minimum of anonymity and privacy necessary for this process. And I certainly hope – although I’m sure it will never come to this – that the German justice system is going to defend the principle of reintegration of former criminals into society against those who deem the abbreviation of a name, the mere omission of a few letters, as censorship. Whatever point it is the EFF is trying to make, I certainly can relate more to any society that tries to be humane and reintegrate former criminals than to a society in which even minors and innocent have been executed, plus of course plenty of actual criminals. Unlike incarceration any execution is irreversible.

Just my two cents from the stormy, cold and volcanic island in the North Atlantic,

// Oliver (German, according to his passport)

[1] … interestingly the death penalty has been abolished by the majority of countries. Out of those currently or formerly considered “rogue states” by the USA we get:

  • Iran (retains death penalty)
  • Sudan (retains death penalty)
  • Cuba (retains death penalty)
  • Iraq (retains death penalty)
  • North Korea (retains death penalty)
  • Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, now Afghanistan (retains death penalty)
  • Libya (retains death penalty)
  • Syria (retains death penalty)
  • FR Yugoslavia, now several independent countries (all abolished death penalty)

Ouch, that puts the USA – “home of the free” – into a relation that is not very flattering indeed, however cosmopolitan the EFF deems itself or the US constitution …

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