Former German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum talks to DW about the benefits and risks of a digital society and its effect on democracy. We should have the "courage" to go for more direct democracy, he says.
Gerhart Baum was Germany's Interior Minister in the coalition government of the social-democratic SPD and free-market FDP in 1978-1982. His particular interest was, and continues to be, the protection of the right to personal privacy. He has been campaigning for years for data protection and related civil liberties and he has successfully brought several cases against telephone monitoring, online searches and data retention to the Constitutional Court. Baum is 79 years old and lives with his second wife in Cologne. In addition to political publications, he also publishes articles in various newspapers.
DW: What in your opinion is the significance of data protection in a democratic society?
Gerhart Baum: The protection of privacy is a freedom issue. According to Article 1 of our Constitution, our dignity may not be violated. Attacks on the private sphere are attacks on human dignity, unless, for example, they are justified in the fight against crime. Privacy is thus a key issue that directly affects our freedom.
Data protection is put to the test by digitalization. Digitalization is a revolution that has changed our lives. The Internet is a space in which we now live. It offers new possibilities for personal development and communication. But the Internet is also a threat to privacy, a danger that is already out there. We human beings have already become transparent.
On the website of FoeBuD, an organization promoting civil rights and civil liberties, you wrote, "The uncontrolled use of personal data ultimately endangers the democratic character of our society." What is the danger if the state knows too much about its citizens?
The state is relatively easy to control - at least in theory. For example, there is the possibility of appealing to the Federal Constitutional Court. I have taken advantage of this several times. The Court has determined, for example, that data retention violates the constitution. As a result, the private sphere has been better and more strongly protected.
But the state sector still gives cause for concern, as seen in the debate about state-sponsored trojans which can intercept Internet telephone conversations. These are in some ways very troublesome developments. But there is a public discussion and action here is more likely.
What the risks from the private sector? To what extent does the free market endanger democracy?
In the private sector, it is very difficult to take action because firms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon are global corporations. It is a fact that the footprints we leave on the Internet remain for ever. Google gets about a billion hits per day. This billionfold flood of data doesn't disappear. It is processed. It will create personality profiles for commercial - and possibly other - purposes.
Where do you see the specific responsibility of individual citizens?
The state must set the framework for data processing in the private sector. This must be done by legislators in Germany as well as Europe. But we need global agreements on the protection of privacy.
An individual has a choice, of course, as to whether to disclose data or not. People have to develop a sense of responsibility - particularly younger people - so that they see the dangers and become aware of them. It is important to exercise restraint. Some people are already talking about the need for asceticism in dealing with data.
However, there is a large area where we leave information whether we like it or not. Here we do not have a choice at all.
For some time now, opinion makers have been talking about a transformation of democracy. Some fear a so-called post-democracy, in which the actual decision-making power is transferred to committees of experts and business elites. Others point to increasing democratization, thanks to the new opportunities offered by the Internet. There's talk of new forms of direct democracy. How do you see these two trends?
The ability to communicate on the Internet, to bundle shared opinions, is a whole new dimension of democratic opinion-shaping. But this shouldn't replace representative democracy! We cannot replace parliament.
There is after all a danger of manipulation in the Internet. You can, for example, promote or finance opinions as a "pressure group," which puts pressure on politicians or other people. The Internet can be manipulated. We have to be very careful here. The freedom movement in Iran and elsewhere has shown that those in power deliberately use the Internet to pursue their opponents.
Do you see a danger that there is a kind of frustration with representative democracy, especially among the younger users of the Internet?
This is a danger that is not new. The parties do not have a great image. There has always been criticism of the parties. Today, however, there is contempt for the parties.
I'm in favor of thinking about how to achieve elements of direct democracy that are somewhat stronger than what we have today. But it's essential to allow parliament to decide critical questions where both sides need to be considered carefully. In general, we should have the courage to go for more direct democracy. But we should not fool ourselves. Direct democracy also brings with it the danger that minority opinions will be drowned out.
Interviewer: Rodion Ebbinghausen / sb
Editor: Michael Lawton