Only modest crowds gathered in cities across Germany to protest against Internet surveillance by the US intelligence service, NSA. The physical demonstrations were not nearly as large as their online equivalent.
Under the "Stop Watching Us" slogan, a few thousand people in over 30 German cities protested on Sunday against US intelligence surveillance of Internet and telephone communications abroad. Anger over the issue in Germany has been fairly widespread since news of spying activities by the National Security Agency (NSA) became public.
But getting people to protest publicly and mobilize others, including those with no interest in the Internet, was no easy undertaking according to Jan-Martin Zimmermann. He was one of the organizers of the demonstration in Frankfurt.
The street protests remained small, with fewer than 500 demonstrators in most cities. Apart from Frankfurt, only Hamburg and Berlin showed more significant numbers. Organizers have partly blamed the hot summer weather for the low turnout.
Zimmermann points out that surveillance is like radioactivity: you can't see it, hear it or feel it, but it is there. He sees this intangibility as the reason for the restrained reaction to the issue until now.
The "Stop Watching Us" slogan originates from an anti-NSA campaign mounted in the US by a group of businesses and civil rights organizations in early June. "This kind of across-the-board data collection undermines the American values of freedom and privacy," states an online petition that was signed by over half a million people.
Double standards in privacy laws
Online petitions in Germany have had similar success. One of them, against the PRISM Internet monitoring program and criminal prosecution of whistleblowers, which can be found on the change.org website, has so far attracted 40,000 supporters. It is directed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The dissatisfaction displayed online was to become physically visible during the street demonstrations around the country. "There is only one world - online and offline go together and the same basic rights should apply everywhere," emphasized Zimmermann, adding that everyone should understand "that we're moving towards being a state that has the infrastructure to control us all and monitor us all - and this must not happen in a democracy."
This separation between the Internet and the real world is not only difficult to accept for "normal" people, but also for regular Internet users.
Not enough protection from the state?
At the first of the demonstrations, in Frankfurt, protesters took refuge in the shade of trees. The mood livened up when Jörg-Uwe Hahn, justice minister for the state of Hesse and member of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), entered the loudspeaker car. He called for an international data protection treaty, comparable to climate protection agreements. The crowd responded by booing, though, with many participants of the opinion that, in particular, the government and established parties, like the FDP, have failed on this issue.
One of these skeptics is Daniel K. He believes that German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has "no clue" what he is doing when he tells people to protect their data themselves.Daniel thinks individuals need to be protected by the state and by laws that make sense. "In Germany, we have the confidentiality-of-correspondence principle in the postal service, so why doesn't it apply to email addresses, for example?" he asks.
Call for high-level investigation
The "Stop Watching Us" campaign is organized in Germany by various private groups, such as the Chaos Computer Club and Digitalcourage, as well as by associations affiliated with political parties, like the FDP, the Greens, the Left and the Pirate Party. In light of the NSA scandal, they are calling for an investigation by the EU parliament, "because the legislative authority is clearly at the EU level," according to Zimmermann. "Eighty percent of German laws must coincide with European regulations," he says.
Internet freedom is not only endangered by secret intelligence gathering, however. "Stop Watching Us" provides a good example of that. The protest organizers' Facebook pages and the campaign mobilization page for the demonstration in Frankfurt were inaccessible for over 24 hours, reported Zimmermann. After several enquiries, Facebook claimed that a technical problem was responsible, but Zimmermann is skeptical. "The degree to which we are dependent on companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft is truly scary."