Faced with global outrage over the NSA's collection of billions of data sets, US President Obama promised changes to the US intelligence service. His speech has provoked a variety of responses from German politicians.
"There's a clear sign of concession," Stephan Mayer said to DW. He sits in the Bundestag for the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and was positively surprised by Obama's speech on Friday(17.01.2014). It showed that the US took Europe and especially Germany seriously in their criticism, according to Mayer. But he also stressed that these words needed to be followed by actions. Germany wouldn't break off relations with the US, should the no-Spy-agreement fail. But "we would continue to push for more data protection and another agreement," said Mayer.
His party colleague Wolfgang Bosbach, head of the conservatives' parliamentary group, judged the president's words more critically. Not wire-tapping the cell phones of heads of states anymore is not extraordinary progress, Bosbach said on German radio. "This promise is only marginally assuring, since most of the people in our country aren't heads of state or government." He added that Obama merely stated the obvious.
Understanding the US need for security
Some parliament members however also expressed understanding for the US president. One of them is Social Democrat Rolf Mützenich: "Unfortunately, the 9/11 attacks and the Boston Marathon Bombing last year are still an important part of the US identity," Mützenich said to DW. "We can't forget that."
Obama's promise to restrict the large-scale data collection and instead use more directed spying, especially for suspects in Europe, is good progress according to Mützenich: "That wasn't even on the table last year - but it's still far too little from a German point of view." He also said Europe had to work on international data protection itself and look for possible allies, since laws to protect privacy are highly important.
Data protection expert Jan Philipp Albrecht, Green Party member in the European Parliament, was not surprised by Obama's speech.
"It was only a change of rhetoric, but not a change of heart," Albrecht said to DW. "Mass surveillance will continue." That's why it's important for Europe to keep up the pressure on the US and make clear that data security is an important asset for every EU citizen, he said.
"Europe has had a severe competitive disadvantage in the last few years, because large IT-firms from Silicon Valley were supported by the US government and managed to build up monopolies," he said. These firms were able to collect data without adhering to any rules and this "has got to stop."
Developing European standards
European Union governments also need to take action. Their own intelligence services lack the NSA's capabilities. It is also important to pass the currently still-outstanding data protection regulations, and European countries have to invest in technology and data protection. "We basically need a digital New Deal to finally make Europe's IT infrastructure and companies independent," Albrecht said.
Internet activist Anna Biselli of netzwerk.org agreed. "From my point of view as an engineer, Europe has to develop encryption standards," she told DW, adding that Europe should no longer rely on the US hardware and software. As important as what Obama said was what he did not say, Biselli said. He did not address how the NSA manipulated data encryption standards. The result, she added, will be that the practice will continue. There were some positive aspects to Obama's speech. "The positive is that the approval will no longer apply to mass data collection but rather should move toward approval for individual cases."
No-spy deal isn't enough
A clear criticism of Obama's plans came from Sevim Dagdelen, a member of Germany's Left party. She said she was shocked "that Obama basically explained that the practice of surveillance in the broadest sense and the saving of text messages would continue." The German government must take action against such practices, she added, suggesting Berlin immediately end the SWIFT agreement on sharing banking data as well as a program designed to share commercial airline passenger data. The European Union should also use a free-trade agreement as a way of pressuring the US into changing its policies. The most important step, however, is to dismantle the infrastructure in Germany that makes US surveillance possible, including the US command centers in Stuttgart and at Ramstein air base.
"The German government has to support a UN treaty that protects against breaches of basic rights," she said, adding that measures should also be implemented to protect whistleblowers like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. A no-spy agreement, Dagdelen said, does not go far enough.