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Best of GMF 2014

Handling digital garbage

Stefan Kornelius, senior editor for foreign policy at the respected German-language newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, is one of the expert panelists taking part in a Transatlantic Talk at this year’s Global Media Forum.

In an interview, he shares his thoughts on the NSA affair and its impact on transatlantic relations.

Mr. Kornelius, given the great loss of confidence caused by the NSA affair, how deep is the fracture in transatlantic relations?

SK: Since September 11, 2001, the United States has greatly shifted its understanding of security and its geopolitical interests away from Europe. The country’s security requirements dominate its foreign policy. In Europe – particularly in Germany – there is a much stronger desire to preserve privacy. People in the U.S., however, have greater trust in their government and how it handles their personal data. This is the core of the conflict, which has materialized in the form of the NSA affair. At the moment, neither side sees any way to reconcile this. Although it won’t lead to a break in transatlantic relations, the crisis is in fact a major stress factor that weighs heavily on our societies and divides them.

Could the crisis become a never-ending story?

SK:In the history of our relationship, this is an important chapter that won’t go away very easily. It’s not just about the NSA. We’re talking about a problem that’s symptomatic of our day and age. How do we deal with new technologies, new threats to our security, and a new understanding of “public sphere”? So both sides would be well served to come to an agreement. If we can’t find common ground in this area, then the crisis could turn into a never-ending story.

What are the long-term prospects for U.S.-European relations?

SK:The Americans know that we need one another. It’s the Europeans who are turning away from the U.S. But both parties will come to realize that they’re interdependent – especially right now during the current crisis with Russia. Europe won’t vanish from the U.S.’s map, and likewise, the Europeans need allies if they want to continue to assert their interests in the world. The United States is a key component in Europe’s security architecture.

Where is the balance between the civil right to privacy versus limitations for the sake of security?

SK:After many years of naive euphoria concerning the Internet, we’re realizing that new technologies and the explosion in communications behaviors have greatly changed society. Digitization determines our lives to such a great extent that we need to give much more thought to its impact and consequences. We’re faced with a blank map, unknown terrain, much like the explorers who set out to discover the globe. Now it’s up to us to explore the digital world map. We need to establish rules, identify the legal loopholes, and agree on the right balance between private and public realms. Everyone should be allowed some place private. There must be ways for people to protect themselves against uninterrupted digital assault. There should be a right to erase the digital memory. At the same time, though, we don’t want to unnecessarily damage the Internet’s enormous opportunities.

Many issues were neglected in the first few decades of the World Wide Web. The NSA has now forced us to think these through. But the affair is only symptomatic of the digital relationship between governments and their citizens and of relations between sovereign states. The socio-political problem goes much deeper than that. Everyone is accumulating a mountain of digital garbage throughout their lives. How do we deal with that? Just like with radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, we have to consider how to remove such digital waste. Who can dispose of it? Do we need a final storage container for it?

The European Commission is crafting a new Internet law. In light of recent revelations, isn't that a hopeless undertaking?

SK:The European Parliament had concerned itself with data security and personal privacy even before the NSA affair became public. Now we know that their thinking didn’t go far enough. The new Commission and new parliament will have to revisit the matter. The previous legislation expires with this year’s European elections, so it will be one of the major legislative efforts over the next couple of years. It’s a matter of creating legal parameters for the digital world, a matter of protecting citizens and their privacy – from too much government as well as from new forms of crime.