What are the disadvantages of visiting Germany
End mass surveillance - Obama and Merkel should act
Angela Merkel is supposed to use Barack Obama's visit to Germany for open and harsh words - because US espionage thwarts all efforts to achieve freedom on the Internet - and when the guest is gone, the Chancellor has to touch her own nose.
The Chancellor and the US President will embrace each other on June 18 and exchange kisses left and right. The eyes will shine and both sides will smile and praise the German-American friendship. After all, the visit from Washington is an election campaign gift for Angela Merkel, and the president can hope for symbolic images for his own legendary creation.
Both are faced with a huge dilemma: Obama has a gigantic surveillance scandal on his neck and Merkel has to loudly and clearly denounce the spying of German citizens by American secret services. But in order not to be seen as a hypocrite, she has to touch her own nose and see to it that her own house is put in order.
The recent revelations about the American surveillance system have shown us that the dramatic rise in private digital communications and the power of government computers have fueled surveillance practices that violated our right to privacy in a way that did just a few years ago was still unimaginable. All governments, including the German one, must check whether their surveillance and data protection laws still adequately protect privacy in the face of the new digital reality.
June is a black month for internet freedom. India has installed its own centrally controlled surveillance system and Singapore and Jordan have introduced new restrictions on expression. But the shock wave came primarily from one of the greatest human rights advocates, the United States. Autocrats in China, Russia and elsewhere have been rubbing their hands in delight since the first minutes of the scandal. America, of all things, the capital of the Internet, has spied on users around the world. The US secret services have demanded access to their data from the largest Internet companies in the world. The companies have obviously given their consent and have been silenced.
The world citizen is outraged - and rightly so! The US government is defending its intrusion into the privacy of the global Internet community, and at the same time violating the rights of people who have no democratic participation in legislation in the US and who cannot appeal against it. Standing in front of the world press and claiming that the rights of US citizens have not been touched (which has yet to be proven) without even mentioning the rest of humanity only adds to the horror of such arrogance.
The message from the American government seems to be: We know we are bound by borders when it comes to our own citizens, but when it comes to the rest of the world, we do not have such restrictions. This attitude disregards a fundamental principle of human rights: they apply to everyone.
America's reputation as the greatest advocate of internet freedom has been ruined for now. The US wasn't perfect, but it was a powerful, courageous, and effective comrade here and there. But now the Americans can no longer point their finger at Russians, Chinese and others without earning derisive laughter.
It's a tragedy; because the Americans had campaigned particularly strongly for the global rights of Internet users. You have joined the Online Freedom Coalition, a group of countries like Sweden and the Netherlands and, more recently, the Federal Republic of Germany that supports rights such as privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of speech and assembly on the Internet.
The Chancellor must make it clear that she is deeply concerned about the disregard for the rights of non-Americans. She should ask Obama to deliver a full and public report on the impact this policy has on human rights outside the US. It should also demand some form of liability for any disadvantages caused by the spying, as well as related compensation.
But how is she supposed to explain to the US President how to behave if surveillance is not exactly unproblematic in Germany?
Frank La Rue, the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression and expression, says Germany should review its own position on spying. In April, he complained that the vague and unspecific term "national security" was used to justify lavish surveillance and extensive access to communications. In many cases, the national secret services, including the German ones, enjoy blanket exemptions for the need for judicial approval.
Vicious mass surveillance
Will Merkel have the political will to do this? To remain silent when it comes to the German secret services would not only be a disgrace, but would also increase the damage to human rights that the American spying scandal has already wreaked globally.
Merkel should publicly address homemade mistakes in monitoring people in Germany and elsewhere and advocate change. But it is of course tricky to present yourself as a fighter for freedom of expression on the Internet, while at the same time the Federal Republic allows autocrats in this country to equip themselves with technology that enables them to spy on critics and silence them.
Obama and Merkel should use the current spying scandal as an opportunity to stand up wholeheartedly for human rights on the Internet and to end the shameful mass surveillance and the extraction of data. The internet has made mass spotting a lot easier. Now is the time to adapt national laws to ensure that the new technologies are not used against the people who use them - at home or abroad.
Wenzel Michalski is the Germany director of Human Rights Watch. He tweets as @WenzelMichalski.
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