Germany may get its own walled-off internet

Deutsche Telekom has outlined an ambitious plan to keep US noses out of German business – by walling the country off from the rest of the net.

Germany may get its own walled-off internet

The state-backed provider has won approval from the German telecoms regulator to push its initiative forward, which would require agreements with rival operators plus several ambitious technical feats to keep German internet traffic in Germany.

The project comes after European security experts criticised US control over the internet – but has been dismissed as a gimmick by some.

“It is internationally without precedent that the internet traffic of a developed country bypasses the servers of another country,” said Torsten Gerpott, a professor of business and telecoms at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “The push of Deutsche Telekom is laudable, but it’s also a public relations move.”

It is internationally without precedent that the internet traffic of a developed country bypasses the servers of another country

Deutsche Telekom hasn’t released the technical details of its project, but the aim appears to be to ensure German traffic is never routed through US servers.

Difficult in practice

Experts pointed out that Deutsche Telekom’s rhetoric exceeded the practical changes that could be expected from the project. More than 90% of Germany’s internet traffic already stays within its borders, said Klaus Landefeld, a board member of the non-profit organisation that runs the DE-CIX internet exchange point in Frankfurt.

Others pointed out that Deutsche Telekom’s preference for being paid by other networks for carrying traffic to the end user, instead of “peering” agreements at no cost, clashed with its goal to keep traffic within Germany. It can be cheaper or free for German traffic to go through London or Amsterdam, where it can be intercepted by foreign spies.

Thomas Kremer, the executive in charge of data privacy and legal affairs for the German operator, said the group needed to sign connection agreements with three additional operators to make a national routing possible. “If this were not the case, one could think of a legislative solution,” he said.

“As long as sender and receiver are in the Schengen Area or in Germany, traffic should no longer be routed through other countries,” Kremer said, referring to the 26-country passport-free zone in Europe.

A spokesperson for Telefonica Germany said it was in early discussions on national routing with other groups. A spokesperson for Vodafone said it was “evaluating if and how” to implement the Deutsche Telekom proposal.

Cloudy record

Although Deutsche Telekom is positioning itself as a safe custodian of user data, its track record on privacy is mixed. In a 2008 affair dubbed “Telekomgate”, Klaus Trzeschan, a security manager at the group, was jailed for three-and-a-half for his role in monitoring phone calls of the firm’s own management and supervisory board members, as well as business reporters.

A spokesman for Deutsche Telekom said the affair was the reason why the group worked “so hard” on privacy and security issues in recent years. “We are now the leading company of our industry when it comes to customers’ trust,” he said.

Still, the most popular online services aren’t built to respect borders. Since web firms choose the location of their data centres based on cheap power, cool climates and the availability of high-speed broadband networks, the location of their customers rarely comes into play.

For example, if a Munich resident uses Facebook to chat with a friend sitting 310 miles away in Berlin, the traffic would go through one of the company’s three massive data centers in Oregon or North Carolina, or one near the Arctic Circle in the Swedish town of Luleå. European users’ profiles are not necessarily stored in the Swedish centre; instead the website’s different functions such as games, messaging, and wall posts are distributed among the data centers to improve efficiency.

Similarly, emails sent by Google’s Gmail between two German residents would probably be routed through one of the company’s three data centers in Finland, Belgium and Ireland.

The only way to change this would be for Germany to require local hosting of websites, a drastic move according to experts that has not yet been pushed by German leaders. Deutsche Telekom declined to say whether it would lobby for such an approach.

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, angered by reports that the US spied on her and other citizens, is pushing legislation that would force Google, Facebook and other internet companies to store locally gathered or user-generated data inside the country.

One solution would be for European leaders to beef up a new data-privacy law, which has been in the works for almost two years. A greatly toughened version of the law was backed by the European Parliament on Monday, but it still requires agreement by member states.

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