Saturday, 7 November 2015

Germany's privacy preoccupation

Can Germans convince other Europeans to feel as strongly about data privacy as they do? A new documentary tries to make the case.

Last night I attended the Berlin premier of Democracy, a documentary about the European Union's proposed data privacy regulation. The director, David Bernet, has been following the main actors involved in the legislation since it was first proposed in January 2012.

The film strives to be a call-to-arms for Europe as a whole, drawing attention to the threat posed by data surveillance and the current make-or-break moment for this legislation which would put controls on snooping. It opens and closes with shots of the Parthenon in Athens, with an ominous-looking government helicopter flying overhead. The not-so-subtle message: all democracy is under threat from unrestrained data surveillance.

But despite the pan-European scenes, the film seems to be coming from a very German perspective on these issues. And as somewhat of a privacy-sceptic, I came away feeling that while film told me what is happening with the legislation, it didn't tell me why I should support it.

It's only natural that the film comes from a German perspective, after all it is a German film in the German language (although about 70% of the interviews and dialogue are in English with German subtitles). It follows the exploits of the member of the European Parliament who is in charge of the legislation, Jan-Philipp Albrecht, a German Green MEP.

But where the film falters, I believe, is that it seems to take as its starting point an assumption that everybody cares about privacy as much as Germans do.

Stasi hangover

Germans take privacy very seriously. Domestically, the government is not allowed to conduct surveillance on its own citizens (so they tacitly let the CIA do it for them). Laws about what data can be collected and shared by companies are very strict (and a new law is now being debated in the German parliament). Some have even blamed the recent downing of a GermanWings plane on Germany's strict privacy laws, because the doctors treating the suicidal pilot where not allowed to share information with his employer. The German state of Hesse passed the world's first data privacy law all the way back in 1970. A federal law was passed in 1976.

Germany's obsession with privacy has even spawned a homegrown start-up scene in Berlin: tech companies specialising in consumer security and privacy.

In general, Germany has some of the most stringent regulation on internet activity in Europe, including the continent's most hardline copyright enforcer (GEMA). The liability onus placed on internet providers has translated into a well-known lack of wi-fi in Germany, because businesses don't want to take the liability risk in providing it.

Now Germans are working to extend their view of the internet to Europe as a whole. The new European Commissioner for the digital agenda, Germany's Gunther Oettinger (pictured), wants the EU to impose strong protection for copyright holders. His attitude during his first year in office could be characterised as wanting to bring Berlin's philosophy on the internet to Brussels.

Of course, not everyone who is advocating for data privacy protection is German, and not every German is concerned about data privacy. But it is notable in the documentary how many of the advocates for this new piece of legislation are coming from Germany. In my six years of covering EU politics in Brussels I've noticed that any debate about technology-related issues and privacy has seen a disproportionate amount of Germans involved. Many of the big policy conferences around the subject take place here in Berlin.

That Germany is taking the lead in this area may be admirable. One could argue that Germans are alive to the threat of unrestrained data collection in a way that the rest of Europe hasn't yet caught on to. But too often I find that the German privacy advocates don't understand that not everyone feels as they do.

Ask a German why it is that their country is so particularly focused on this issue and they always give the same answer - the Gestapo and the Stasi. The argument goes that countries with recent experiences of dictatorship are more sensitive to the need to limit the ability of governments to collect data about citizens. The Nazis and the Communists exerted such control over people's daily lives because they had such an enormous amount of surveillance, and Germans know what can happen when the government knows too much about you.

Fair enough. But this doesn't explain why other countries who lived through even more recent dictatorships, like Spain, Greece, Poland or Romania (to name a few) are fairly unbothered by surveillance. It also doesn't explain why West Germans, who lived through a surveillance state 70 years ago, feel as passionately about this as East Germans, whose memories of their surveillance state are only 25 years old.

From Brussels to Berlin

Wherever it comes from, the German privacy preoccupation is now having effects far beyond its borders. The regulation for this area is largely being formed at EU rather than national level, so if Germans want to put in place strong protections they need to do it in Brussels. That means it will also effect everyone else. This, in turn, is putting the EU into conflict with the US government and US companies.

Edward Snowden, the NSA defector whose 2013 revelations showed the vast extent of US surveillance, features prominently in the documentary. Yet while he has become a hero in much of Europe (the European Parliament adopted a resolution last month calling for him to have asylum in the EU), in the United States the revelations have barely registered with the public. A recent survey found that he is viewed negatively by 64% of Americans who are familiar with him (one-third has never even heard of him). By contrast, 84% of Germans who are familiar with him view him positively (only 5% haven't heard of him).

That disparity shows just how differently the privacy issue is viewed in Germany and America. And because of Germany's influence in Brussels, this has now pitted the EU and the US against each other. The European Parliament has blocked the sharing of airline passenger information with the US government. A proposed new EU-US free trade deal (TTIP) has been very unpopular in Germany because, among many other reasons, Germans are concerned that it would force Europe to import America's loose lax protections on data privacy. Companies like Google and Facebook are also battling with the EU institutions over policy issues that are clearly being largely generated by Berlin.

The proposed data protection regulation, which has now been passed by the European Parliament and is sitting in the Council of national governments waiting for their approval, is the ultimate showdown on these issues. MEPs report that the level of lobbying on this legislation is unprecedented, and national governments are under huge pressure to kill it or heavily water it down. The companies say it would involve enormous red tape for internet companies doing business in Europe, and in this era where an anti-EU bureaucracy narrative pervades Europe, this will be a compelling argument for national governments.

And so the film leaves us there. Perhaps following the legislation all the way to its completion would have made morse sense, but there is no guarantee that this legislative process will ever be completed. The Council has a habit of killing EU proposals by letting them stall into oblivion. The film is being released at this moment to get people to pay attention. It is designed to put pressure on the national governments.

But whether capitals other than Berlin will actually feel this pressure remains to be seen. Last night, the audience at the film's premier at Berlin's Urania Theatre was clearly made up of fellow-travellers who did not need convincing. They applauded the activists who warned of the dangers of data collection, and booed the lobbyists warning about the dangers of crippling internet companies. But the film cannot succeed by only preaching to the choir. It needs to change the hearts and minds of people who have not yet been convinced that they should care about this issue.

For my part, I still need more convincing. 


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