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Germany

German Minister Under Fire Over Telekom Spying Scandal

The German interior minister has come under attack for failing to take a tough line against Deutsche Telekom for its breaches of data laws. Calls are growing for controls on the industry to be tightened up.

Surveillance cameras next to Telekom logo on roof of building

Is self-regulation the answer when companies break laws?

Wolfgang Schaeuble has called a meeting for Monday, June 1, with the sector in a bid to win assurances that the firms will stick to the laws in the future. But many have failed even to respond to the invitation and critics say the Deutsche Telekom scandal proves that self-regulation does not work.

One of Germany's main police unions, the Federation of German Criminal Police (BDK), said Schauble's response to the snooping scandal was "fatal" and "pure window dressing."

"After the inconceivable events that took place at Telekom it is not enough to pass around coffee and cookies," said BDK head, Klaus Jansen, in an interview with the German newspaper Osnabruecker Neue Zeitung.

Calls for self-regulation sends wrong signal

Wolfgang Schaeuble looking pensive

Civil liberties campaigners see Schaeuble as more of a poacher than a gamekeeper

"It signals to the industry that what has happened isn't so bad at all, when in fact strict guidelines are urgently needed," added Jansen. He also called for a massive expansion of data protection controls over the telecommunications sector.

The police union head also accused Germany's data protection commissioner Peter Schaar of having a "relaxed" approach to the most serious data abuses. "Clearly, when it comes to data protection Schaar is blind in one eye," said Jansen.

Last week, the telecommunications giant admitted hiring an outside firm to spy on staff and journalists in a bid to discover the source of leaks about the firm to the media. It said the "ill-advised use of communications data" happened in 2005 and probably 2006.

The telecoms giant insists that the Berlin consultancy firm Network Deutschland had not listened to journalists' conversations, but only logged details about who had phoned whom as well as the time and duration of the calls.

The German government's response has also been criticized by Telekom's competitors. Juergen Gruetzner, head of the Association of Telecommunications and Value-Added Service Providers (VATM), told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper that Monday's meeting reflected the government's discomfort, as the largest shareholder in Telekom, over the affair.

The VATM head said the scandal had done massive damage to the reputation of the industry as a whole and called for a discussion about whether penalties should be increased. At the moment the maximum fine is 300,000 euros ($465,000).

Opposition sees their fears confirmed

Airbrushed graffiti stencil showing picture of Schaeuble and caption Stasi 2.0

The new laws remind some of the East German secret police, the Stasi

The opposition sees the scandal as lending weight to its objections to laws introduced by Schaeuble in January. Under the legislation firms are obliged to keep a record of every e-mail sent, every phone call made -- mobile or otherwise -- and all Internet usage as part of measures to prevent terrorism and fight crime.

They are not meant to record or listen to the phone calls or read the e-mails, but must keep a log for six months of who e-mailed or phoned whom, and which Web sites were visited. Police can apply to consult the information.

Left party politician Petra Pau described Monday's meeting with the telecom industry and the call for self-regulation as "the worst kind of cabaret." She said it was Schaeuble himself who was responsible for having billions of items of personal data stored. "That is an invitation to abuse."

The deputy head of the Green party parliamentary group, Hans-Christian Stroebele, also said Schaeuble was not the right person to tackle a case of horrendous data abuse.

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