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A 'national internet'?

Jennifer Fraczek / re
October 21, 2013

Deutsche Telekom contemplates a 'national internet' in which data and emails go only through domestic lines. Experts are skeptical about this idea.

Image: Fotolia/Gina Sanders

Deutsche Telekom reacted to the National Security Agency scandal with a new slogan, "National Routing" intending to keep data, and protection thereof, within the country. With this new proposal the biggest German telecommunication company is trying to regain lost consumer confidence. "The idea is, contrary to today's common practice, that data from a German sender to a German recipient will not be sent through another country," said Philipp Blank, Telekom's spokesman.

This policy will encompass emails and other data traffic. Telekom wants to avoid data going through allegedly bugged intersections in foreign countries. Telekom suggests that the system will later be expanded to the Schengen area.

The internet is supranational

Experts are skeptical about Telekom's plans seeing difficulties in their realization. The internet's structure is set up in a way that data always looks for the fastest and cheapest way through the global net.

Telekom's CEO Obermann and United-Internet CEO Dommermuth during a press conference
Telekom's CEO Obermann and United-Internet CEO Dommermuth during a press conferenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Jürgen Seeger, editor-in-chief of the IT magazine "iX", says that it would be possible to keep email conversations inside German borders. But in doing so, the idea of the fastest and cheapest way would have to be given up. Additionally, investments in network infrastructure would also be required. This could make internet usage more expensive. Something that would presumably not be popular among consumers.

It would be even more difficult to process the entire internet traffic through domestic lines and intersections. The important Root-Nameservers are mainly based in the US, says Seegers. Setting up a "national internet [with] an expensive and complex network of servers and infrastructure, like the ones in Saudi Arabia and in Iran, would be needed," he said.

Someone will always intercept

And it is doubtful that a "national internet" would be safer. "A totally controlled, national internet would imply that it would be observed which data goes where. So you would [in effect] have a national surveillance of the internet," said Seeger. That also applies if only the email communication, not the total internet traffic, stays in Germany. It might avoid foreign intelligence services reading it but it would allow the German intelligence services easy access.

But emails could also be encrypted, Telekom reassures. Recently Telekom joined forces with other email providers, among them GMX and Freenet, to make email communication safer. But that "does not include new technology and it was long overdue," said Thomas Bösel, data protection officer of the IT service provider QSC AG.

Banner: 'Delete my data' (photo: imago/Philipp Szyza)
Because of the NSA scandal German internet users have less confidence in digital communicationImage: imago

Furthermore data protectionists question that surveillance can be ruled out entirely. The emails are encrypted during transfer but there are many stations on the way from the sender to the recipient when the emails are decrypted to scan them for viruses and malware.

Putting pressure on politicians

Telekom's efforts look a bit like "a PR stunt" to Seeger. But that is not entirely bad because it pushes forward the debate about data privacy in general. For Blank, from Deutsche Telekom, it is politicians responsibility. "Despite our proposal of the national or the Schengen routing system, we think that German consumers want a European data protection agreement." This has been discussed for a long while now, but so far, no agreement has been reached. Such data protection agreements could ensure that European directives are met by foreign companies which provide their services right across Europe.

EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes is not pleased by Telekom's proposal. According to the newsmagazine "Der Spiegel", she thinks the idea of a "national internet" is wrong. The global market cannot be conquered when data is caged within national boundaries and their legal framework. Blank however says that Telekom does not want to isolate its customers.