Reuters reported last week on an agreement reached between Lander premiers in Germany on a licence fee (in similar terms to existing radio and TV licence fees; Ireland and the UK only have the TV version though!) for “computers and mobile phones that can access television and radio programmes via the Internet”.

There’s some chatter and reasonably useful Slashdot discussion on this, including various hypotheticals on firewalled computers and so on. There’s a little bit of information on the collection authority (GEZ)’s website. An important point is that a computer counts as a (warning: interesting and amusing German word on the way) “Zweitgerätefreiheit” – the entitlement that a second or subsequent piece of equipment is covered under the existing licence fee (around five euro a month for radio or 17 for radio/TV). So the biggest ‘hit’ will be offices and others that don’t have an existing licence.

The conceptual issues (as well as the practical ones, which are more popular with others, it seems), are interesting. The GEZ’s FAQ (through my bad German, a dictionary, and auto-translation) argues in defence of the new system (which has been in the pipeline for some time) won’t have a major impact on private households, as the penetration of radio is as close to 100% as makes no significant difference. And follows that with the argument that radio is radio is radio and the method of distribution doesn’t affect the need for public broadcasters to be well funded. What they are saying – without saying it – is that it’s not really an equipment levy, but a flat-rate general tax (with a now-enhanced heavier burden on artificial persons) to support public ‘media’ (the revenue is all flowing to broadcasters and content generators, not locked away for Internet development or broadband rollout or whatever). Therefore it’s not a case of ‘licensing the Internet’, but a modification on the (very European) notion of finding a clever way to pay for public broadcasting (note the Swedish sin of failing to pay the broadcast licence – not as silly as it sounds given that the politician was a) being appointed as Culture Minister and b) a former employee of public radio!).

From my medium-is-important perspective, I see problems with how the scheme is drawn, and potentially huge obstacles on definition and collection. The concept of ‘Internet users’ (whether in their capacity as such or as members of a social democratic society) having an obligation – perhaps even an enhanced one given the fragmentation of audiences – to pay for public broadcasting/media/content/platforms/even mediums-media-whatever – is not so easily dismissed as an application of old ideas to new media, though. The German approach may be more logical, perhaps, than the UK’s notion that watching simulcast TV on your computer creates a licence obligation, but ‘watching back’ or downloading doesn’t. I don’t think that is sustainable, and just causes amusement and abuse. Germany will focus on devices “zum Empfang bereithalten” (ready to receive broadcasts), which is quite common even in UK and Irish history on TVs.