Pictured here together at the G20 summit last year, Angela Merkel will discuss proposals with Francois Hollande on Wednesday. Image: President of the European Council/Flickr
Last week we reported on the European Commission’s proposals to cut back the US’s influence over internet governance in face of NSA spying revelations. But it looks like German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants even stronger steps to combat US surveillance of European web users: she’s called for a kind of walled-off network that would keep European data away from prying American eyes.
Reuters reported that in Merkel’s weekly podcast on Saturday, she announced plans to talk with French President Francois Hollande about building a “communication network” to maintain a higher level of data security for Europe’s web users. “Above all, we’ll talk about European providers that offer security for our citizens, so that one shouldn’t have to send emails and other information across the Atlantic,” she said. “Rather, one could build up a communication network inside Europe.”
Germany has been a particularly outspoken critic of NSA and GCHQ surveillance tactics in the wake of revelations leaked by Edward Snowden, and for good reason. The country seems to have been heavily targeted in the spying allegations; even Merkel’s own cell phone was allegedly tapped by the US government, while a potential electronic “spying tent” was discovered on top of the British embassy in Berlin, not far from the German parliament.
Since then, Merkel has been trying to get the US to agree to a “no-spy” agreement, but it looks like Obama’s administration won’t play ball (and given the clandestine nature of spying it’s hard to fathom how much trust could realistically be invested in such an accord).
This latest announcement launches a new counter-espionage offensive, and according to the Independent, it could just be the first of many to come. They cite German magazine Der Spiegel, which claimed to have uncovered plans for a “massive” increase in German anti-spying measures, such as surveillance on the American and British embassies in Berlin—a kind of cycle of surveillance on surveillance that seems the inevitable farcical conclusion of a saga in whicheveryone’s spying on everyone else.
As for the communications network proposal, the idea is to keep Europeans’ data under European data protection regulations. The problem is that, while the internet is a global network, different countries have different laws on privacy. Germany has particularly strict rules on personal privacy—perhaps a result of its Nazi and Communist past, in which oppressive surveillance played a regrettable role.
When Germans’ data leaves the country, however, it’s not necessarily protected by those laws (and could, for instance, be creeped on by the NSA). Merkel also singled out Google and Facebook for basing their operations in places with much less stringent data protection. She didn’t name the country, but Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky points out both companies have their headquarters in Ireland.
Merkel will meet with Hollande on Wednesday to discuss the idea, and France has said they agree with the proposals. It’ll nevertheless take more than that to get anything off the ground. For a start, France and Germany only represent two companies out of Europe, albeit powerful ones. It’s not clear exactly how far their proposed European network would extend, but any closed networks like this risk undermining the global nature of the internet, which the European Commission last week emphasised it was keen to preserve. There are also practical questions, like what happens when you want to send emails from America to Europe, and vice versa?
Moreover, Germany and France have different data protection laws, and a shared policy would likely need to be adopted if a Europe-wide were scheme to work.
News agency UPI also points out that a European network likely wouldn’t be “NSA-proof” (a term we’ve seen bandied around a lot recently, not always very convincingly). They referred to a January interview with German broadcaster ARD in which Edward Snowden said that keeping data off US soil and in national cloud systems wouldn’t be enough. “The NSA goes where the data are,” he said. “If the NSA can pull text messages out of telecommunications networks in China, they can probably manage to get Facebook messages out of Germany.”