Dear Valve,

the for UNCUT! Steam Community group is very displeased that 28 games and bundles containing them were removed from the German Steam store, and many keys even locked for activation out of Germany since the end of May 2016.

Since there has not been any statement by you to date as to why this was deemed necessary after most of these games were being sold in the German Steam store for many years and some nearly reaching their automatic de-indexing period of 25 years on the “index”, we can only speculate that the process was one of correcting a previous oversight of not placing them behind a closed user group, a purge due to instruction by one of the German youth protection boards or a cease and desist by a German based competitor. A voluntary step by the many publishers can be excluded, reasoning that they did not know anything about this, and even you would not freely pass on business opportunities.

We know of the rather harsh provisions of the German youth protection laws for retailed media and broadcasting and as adults we do realize that in the name of youth protection adult entertainment is somewhat disproportionally constricted in this country. The German gaming community and at their forefront the German Video and PC Gamers Association (VDVC, formed after the “killer games debate” climax in 2009) have long used every possibility to lobby for more progressive youth protection which is not grounded in an archaic banning philosophy, but rather in a carefully crafted rating system, which is enforced but does not prohibit any kind of art piece – be it spurring controversy or not. Most recently the VDVC issued a complaint of unconstitutionality to the Federal Constitutional Court in the wake of a more encroaching approach on §131 (related the depiction of violence) of the criminal code by lawmakers. Furthermore, many law and gaming experts are confident that the Wolfenstein 3D court ruling, making unconstitutional Symbols available in movies and television for being art renditions but not for games, where the court failed to weigh into the decision games being an art form, can easily be overturned today, if it should come to similar constellation Apogee Software found themselves in back in 1998. It is still going to be a long fight to change the indexing and confiscation situation in our country, as we are going against mostly new-media-illiterate, morally panicking, prejudiced and hidebound politicians and citizens. Nevertheless, in the meantime we are left to working with the legal provisions that are in place.

While it is perfectly legal for German adults to import indexed and even confiscated media for their own use, it is illegal to sell indexed media in public and without age verification and fully prohibited to sell confiscated titles. However, after the selling has taken place (outside of Germany) activation and use should always be possible for the customer. In the current situation, gamers and publishers (or their contracted vendors) cannot utilize certain bought licenses of these games from Germany which is a major inconvenience and also not quite understandable.

Valve has always made the argument that they would abide by German youth protection. But why are you selling thousands of USK16/18 rated or unrated titles without any of the provisions needed to do so? The age gate is not seen as appropriate youth protection in Germany, so real age verification has to be done – the broadcasting youth protection act (JMStV) provides for time-restricted selling of content (USK 18 content from 11pm to 6am), labelling the whole webpage for filter software or introducing age verified closed user groups (in which even unrated and indexed content – except for List B/D or confiscated media – may be sold).

Since 2009 our group has been appealing to Valve to introduce a closed user group on Steam for German customers. The other measures according to JMStV like time restricted selling or youth protection programs do not work for a digital distribution company or youth protection on the Internet in general either. So a closed user group is really all that is left to do. We also know that Valve has internally been discussing this approach and that Valve would like to have a “one-for-all” approach for all youth protection laws like Japan’s and Australia’s. Even your own Mr. Newell has stated in 2011 that age verification (AVS) will be coming sometime – but Valve-time will just not cut it in this respect. As youth protection is not an international or even standardized approach, the market provisions and standards are to be met separately at the moment.

In 2013 we had issued to Mr. Newell the results of a group survey (PDF) conducted by us, in which it became more than clear that the German Steam community wants such an AVS and the members would even pay a small fee for it. We have not even received acknowledgment of the receipt of the report. Please do not ignore your customers any further.

There is a rather trivial way to remedy this awful situation. Valve is working with a few payment services, which provide age verification services. “SOFORT Payment” and “Giropay” provide age verification systems (AVS), which are not only TÜV-certified and as such technically safe for the customer – they are additionally even certified by the KJM (federal broadcasting youth protection supervision board) and can easily be implemented into the German storefront since their systems are already in use on Steam. The costs of about €2.50 per initial identification could be passed through onto the customer (since we found out people would be willing to pay a small fee upfront). The further authentication of identified customers is secured with your own piece of equipment: the Steam Mobile Authenticator. We have no doubt that the KJM would certify such an AVS system with identification and authentication modules.

This service would make it a piece of cake to implement a “closed user group” of German adults (or persons temporarily living in Germany), in which the sale of unrated games and games on lists “A” and “C” would be perfectly legal. There are practically millions of dollars to be made in that possibility, just to imagine the popular zombie survival genre in recent years among many others. On the other hand, there is only a one-time development and integration process, which cannot be that hard for a software distribution giant such as you. For publishers as your customers this could provide an invaluable service that might set you apart from competition by making the rating process unnecessary for adult content. The only argument against a system where one would not need to be age verified, is in order to be able to disseminate adult contents to minors, violating German laws knowingly.

As digital distribution is obviously becoming the norm in a few years time, an AVS could also be used by other services (might be against a fee of sorts) such as streaming sites (Steam Broadcasting, Twitch, etc.), mail order of adult (entertainment) goods, VOD services and ticket vendors which also have to abide by youth protection laws. Adult content by those providers could be opened to customers using your OpenID system, while logged in with a verified Steam account. This is furthermore to be important for your expansion into the movie market, as there are far more movies indexed in Germany than games. Further advantages would be an easier account recovery (through personal information), age grouped matchmaking, less cheating (as only one account could be verified per identification) and ultimately customers being further bound to your platform.

It is past time to stop this incoherent approach towards German youth protection and to start implementing legal certainty for your customers and publishers! How can you as a company, which has always advocated against censorship, see no other way than to propagate censorship methods and half-hearted implementations of youth protection? It does not only look helpless, it is also unprofessional.

– Team for UNCUT!