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Big Brother Accusations

DW staff (jg)November 9, 2007

The German parliament has given the go ahead to a law that will allow telephone and Internet data to be stored for up to six months despite fierce criticism from the opposition and privacy advocates.

Computer network plug and cables
The hotly disputed law will go into operation on Jan. 1, 2008Image: AP

The legislation approved Friday, Nov. 9, also permits the telephone conversations of lawyers, journalists and doctors to be bugged under certain circumstances.

The decision not to exclude these professions from the law has sparked an outcry from those who rely on being able to speak to their clients or contacts confidentially. Members of parliament, religious clerics and state prosecutors have been provided exceptions to the law.

Politicians from the opposition free-market liberal Free Democrats (FDP), the Greens and the Left Party have said they will mount legal challenges to the statute. The Marburger Bund doctors' association has also announced they would have its legality examined. There have also been protests from journalists' and publishing associations.

Powers subject to judicial permission

Person telephoning with phone looming large in foreground
Police powers to conduct telephone surveillance will be extendedImage: dpa - Report

Under the law, police and German intelligence agencies must receive a court's permission and show a strong suspicion of illegal activity in order to examine the data held by telephone companies. The information will allow authorities to determine when and with whom their suspects had telephone, fax or e-mail contact. Police and others with access to the information will also be able to pinpoint where mobile phone calls took place.

The content of the communications will not, however, be provided to investigators.

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said Friday that criticism of the law had been exaggerated and stressed that it was not "paving the way towards a surveillance state." She added that the law would enable the authorities to combat crime and terrorism effectively.

The minister said the law implemented an EU directive in a "minimal fashion." But the German Commissioner for Data Protection, Peter Schaar, said parts of the law exceeded European requirements by failing to exclude less serious crimes.

"A sad day for democracy"

Train wreckage in Madrid
The EU directive behind the German law was prompted by the Madrid train bombingsImage: AP

FDP expert Jörg van Essen said the legislation "placed citizens under general suspicion." He said he wants to appeal to the German Constitutional Court. Jan Korte from the Left Party called the law one of the biggest attacks on press freedom and said that abuse was bound to occur. The Greens described it as a "black day for civil rights" and a "sad day for democracy."

Siegfried Kauder, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, countered the criticism, saying that the law found the right balance between data protection and the need to fight crime. He said it, in fact, represented an improvement in the legal position of journalists.

The justice minister said the EU directive was a reaction to the terrorist attacks on Madrid in March 2004 in which 191 people died. The perpetrators were tracked down using mobile telephone data.

Some 366 parliamentarians voted in favor of the law, while 156 voted against. There were two abstentions.