German government struggling with a ′two-faced′ stance on Internet freedom | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 21.06.2013
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German government struggling with a 'two-faced' stance on Internet freedom

The German government wants to protect Internet users in authoritarian countries from being monitored by state authorities. But critics accuse the government of hypocrisy.

Tunisian journalist and blogger Haythem el Mekki knows what he is talking about when he speaks about Internet freedom. Living in Tunisia under Ben Ali, the country's former dictator who was deposed during the Arab Spring, there was no freedom on the Internet.

"They hacked our accounts, deleted our pages. They tried to silence us for good on the Internet," said el Mekki at a "Freedom Online Conference" in Tunis.

El Mekki was lucky to avoid prison - many of his friends and colleagues were less fortunate.

The tyrant's virtual eye

Follwing the Arab Spring, the United States set up the "Freedom Online Coalition" to which 19 countries belong.

Germanyhas now officially joined the initiative. It primarily supports civil society and Internet activists to protect the freedom of expression on the Internet.

Authoritarian regimes are regularly criticized for controlling the flow of information on the Internet. But the feeling is they have stopped doing this as crudely as the Egyptian government did under Hosni Mubarak - it completely blocked Internet traffic at the height of the Arab Spring protests.

Image symbolizing Internet surveillance on the Internet (Copyright: kebox / Fotolia.com)

Internet users are being subjected to more surveillance - and some say we are careless with our online privacy

Governments these days will use much more sophisticated methods to control the Net –instead of shutting it down, they might use it to spy on their opponents.

The German government's entry in the "Freedom Online Coalition" is an important signal, says Annegret Bendiek from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

"Part of the government recognizes that non-state actors are using the Internet to understand a range of opinions and to use this as a means of launching political initiatives in authoritarian countries," Bendiek explains.

Bendiek says Germany's membership of the coalition will send a signal to non-state actors that they are being taken seriously and that they have a role.

Initiatives launched by non-state actors may receive financial support. But they may also need technical help, said Germany's Commissioner for Human Rights Markus Löning on radio station, Deutschlandfunk.

He has announced a roundtable discussion with German NGOs with expertise in Internet freedom.

A man coding at a computer (Photo: Oliver Berg dpa/lnw )

The US's surveillance program Prism has sparked a hefty debate about our Internet freedoms

"It's about answering questions like, How can I as a dissident, as a blogger, protect myself from being tracked by the government? How should I set up my email accounts? And how can I protect myself from government oppression?"

Long overdue

It may be a good move, but some say Germany's membership of the Online Freedom Coalition is long overdue.

"You see it time and again that this debate tends to pop up when it's opportune and it costs [the government] nothing," says Konstantin von Notz, a Greens member of the German Bundestag, who is responsible for interior and Internet policy.

Nothing ever really gets down, adds von Notz, who believes the German government's stance on the issue is two-faced.

The West's credibility problem

How credible is anyone's commitment to Internet freedom when even Western secret service agencies are monitoring our Internet traffic?

Green party member of the Bundestag (Photo: Bodo Marks/dpa)

Greens Bundetag member von Notz thinks Germany is two-faced on Internet freedom

During the recent G8 summit, it was alleged that British authorities had monitored users' Internet data. They had also listened in on phone calls – there's nothing new in that.

But the German Secret Service says it plans to expand the country's Internet surveillance.

Add to this the scandal over the American surveillance program, Prism, and von Notz says it leaves the West looking rather ambiguous.

"It is suspected that these various [security] services are unconstitutionally collecting data in other countries and passing on this information, so that all the domestic security authorities can benefit from it," says von Notz.

This may make their commitment to Internet freedom seem absurd.

But the Germany Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it's important to find the right balance between security measures and the protection of people's privacy.

What that balance is, is anyone's guess.

And there's another credibility problem - the monitoring technology, which some authoritarian states have been known to use, is supplied by developers from the West, mainly Germany.

The German Ministry of Economics and Technology has identified this as a growth market. The export limits that apply to arms do not apply to these kinds of technologies.

Awareness of this contradiction is growing slowly, says SWP's Annegret Bendieck, and people want to know: "What will this mean for our foreign policy and European politics - if we don't want to be total hypocrites?"

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