Germany has been leading the European Union (EU) in reforming their data protection laws, with the aim of strengthening personal rights in the face of a digitalized economy and growing online penetration of social media networks. Germany’s push for new measures, including greater protection from foreign intelligence should not come as a surprise, especially following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying of foreign governments. Just last year, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel accused the NSA of tapping her phone which sparked a very public exchange between her and the White House, with President Obama assuring her that she was under no such watch. Recently, it was revealed that the NSA had monitored Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor back in 2002, following his aversion to military intervention in Iraq. While Germany has been historically able to push for rampant reforms to privacy and data collection laws, current technologies’ reach, combined with increased diplomatic implications poses new challenges.
The historical experience with spying is a well-known narrative in the study of why Germany came to have some of the strictest privacy and data protection laws in the world. The country’s preoccupation with privacy is a product of citizens’ experience with oppressive governments, from the Nazi era to the massive surveillance conducted by the Stasi in former East Germany, where knowledge of individual lives served as an instrument for state control and power. Fear of invasion of personal privacy, whether form the government or private entities is an experience that many living citizens have gone through, including Merkel who grew up in East Germany.
Today, information sharing takes place on a global scale and involves a significant amount of data being transferred between individuals and entities. German officials have not shied away from pressing (repeated) charges against companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple for violating citizens’ privacy through their popular Internet services. The present problem is that Germans are actually increasingly using internet-based services such as social media networks, with most of the new users coming from a younger generation who have not experienced oppressive governments as prior generations have. This is juxtaposed with the fact that most of these services are provided by foreign private entities, namely American corporations. With European bases usually set in Ireland, these corporations readily use arguments of differing jurisdictions and laws, posing new difficulties for German authorities and courts. Therefore, modernizing privacy laws seem necessary for Germany, but this is also seemingly difficult for policy makers as private, multinational corporations further enters the lives of German citizens and attitudes towards such services differ among generations.
Reforming data protection and privacy laws also has diplomatic implications, as observed by the NSA controversy that has hurt US relations with Germany and other important allies. For Germany, the NSA spying also revealed that even after decades of military cooperation with the US, they still have a more limited access to NSA intelligence than do Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Norway. EU members have been debating points of reform of their data protection laws for over two years, with concerns also anchoring on Europe’s dwindling telecom sector in an increasingly digitalized economy. During the 2013 federal election, German socialist parties have gone so far as to suggest that foreign companies be banned from operating in Germany if they failed to comply with EU data protection laws. This raised concerns among American as well as German companies operating in a country that also happens to have a robust tech hub (“Silicon Allee”) . The United Kingdom is urging for greater consideration to the importance of digital economy, as the British have historically placed more priority to business concerns over one’s right to protective measures online. This is vastly different from Germany where individual rights to privacy have been a cornerstone in their human rights and electronic commerce measures.
Spying, whether between governments or otherwise, is one of the oldest professions in global history, and it will not end anytime soon. The Internet was not fashioned to understand national boundaries. Germany, along with other European governments, are seeking ways to create their own channel in what is seen as a US-controlled digital landscape. While German policy makers pride on having the strictest privacy laws in the world, they have not stopped Germans from crowding to a social networking site or downloading smartphone applications. While modernizing privacy and data protection laws are important to match current trends, as observed, German policy makers will have to balance their practice of employing stringent laws with the interest of EU members, taking into account politics, cultural attitudes, economic incentives, and foreign relations.