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Historic Lawsuit

DW staff (sp)December 31, 2007

More than 30,000 Germans have filed a mass lawsuit, marked by protests, against a controversial law that allows the storing of telephone and Internet data for up to six months as part of efforts to combat terrorism.

Telephone cable
Protestors carried out a mock funeral for the "death of privacy"Image: AP

Protests were held in German cities a day before new legislation came into force requiring companies to retain records for six months of e-mail sender and recipient addresses, time spent on the Internet and phone numbers dialled by customers.

Police require a judicial warrant to search the files during inquiries into terrorism and serious crime. The law also permits telephone tapping in certain cases.

The bill, which was passed by the German parliament in November and goes into effect on Jan. 1, is meant to aid investigations into terrorism and serious crime.

"Death of privacy"

At a rally Monday, Dec. 31, in Hamburg, critics and activists held a mock funeral for "the death of privacy." Police said the demonstration by 200 people was non-violent.

In the southern city of Karlsruhe, the Working Party on Data Retention filed for an urgent injunction to stop the legislation on the grounds that it was "obviously unconstitutional."

The group said the 150-page application against "surveillance without suspicion" was initially filed by eight people but was backed by 30,000 people who had signed petitions.

Their names would be joined to the suit after processing by a Berlin law office, making it the largest such appeal in modern German history.

"We are hoping for a quick ruling," said lawyer Meinhard Starostik, who leads the group. But a court spokesman said judges would not attend to the case Monday.

The activists said they would also seek to overturn the March 2006 European Union data-retention directive that required Germany to pass the legislation.

President approves legislation

The new law was further bolstered last week when German President Horst Köhler gave it his blessing.

Horst Köhler reading documents at his desk
German President Köhler approved the data retention lawImage: AP

A spokesman for Köhler said on Wednesday, Dec. 26, that after intense examination of the law, "there was no reason to believe that it could not be signed because it was unconstitutional."

But critics maintain that it tramples privacy rights and civil liberties, places millions of citizens under general terrorist suspicion and paves the way to a surveillance state.

"We're going to fight for the fact that basic rights don't go up in smoke along with the New Year's fireworks and then finally disappear when 2008 dawns," Gisela Piltz, domestic affairs spokeswoman for the opposition free-market liberal FDP party, said last week.

She added that the data retention law "strikes at the foundation of our constitutional state." The court in Karlsruhe will now have to throw light on whether the "surveillance of millions of people in Germany" can be reconciled with the constitution, she said.

Part of EU directive to fight terrorism

Other online surveillance measures have sparked criticism
Other online surveillance measures have sparked criticismImage: AP

The law is part of an EU directive forged in reaction to the terrorist attacks on trains in Madrid in March 2004, in which 191 people died. The perpetrators were tracked down using mobile telephone data. The law is meant to be used to fight terrorism and serious crime.

It allows Internet providers and telephone companies to store numbers, dates and durations of phone calls, and, in the case of mobile phones, their location too, as well as IP addresses and e-mail addresses.

German police, courts and intelligence agencies must obtain a court's permission and show a strong suspicion of illegal activity in order to examine the data. The information allows authorities to determine when and with whom their suspects had telephone, fax or e-mail contact.

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

Worries persist

Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has caused controversy with his anti-terrorism proposals this year
Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has caused controversy with his anti-terrorism proposalsImage: AP

Proponents of the law argue that it is an essential tool to hunt down terrorists. Speaking in November, when the law was passed by the parliament, German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries emphasized that the bill was meant to make it easier to prevent possible terrorist attacks and other serious crimes all over Europe.

Siegfried Kauder, a parliamentarian and member of the conservative Christian Democratic party (CDU), said those who evoked horrors of an Orwellian surveillance state were playing down the importance of domestic security.

"We don't want transparent people, we want transparent criminals," Kauder said.

More than necessary

But critics remain unconvinced. German Commissioner for Data Protection Peter Schaar said that parts of the German law exceeded European requirements by failing to exclude less serious crimes.

One of the concerns centers on the bill's provisions that permit the telephone conversations of lawyers, journalists and doctors to be bugged under certain circumstances.