Laudator: Max Schrems

The BigBrotherAward 2015 in the “Politics” Category goes to

Federal Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière, and former Federal Minister of the Interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich

for systematically and fundamentally sabotaging EU plans for a General Data Protection Regulation.

I had the dubious pleasure some time ago to interview ex-minister Friedrich for “Zeit Online” (the online division of the broadsheet weekly “Zeit”) about data protection. It was an entertaining experience. Imagine a Federal Government minister sitting in an office high above the river Spree in Berlin, whose civil servants chose a foreign, then 25 year-old law student as his “opponent” in a discussion about data protection – as a minimal threat, apparently. It’s telling and sad at the same time.

So there in front of me was the Minister of the Interior of Germany. One of the most powerful players in the EU data protection poker game, normally. But in reality, his format was one of a provincial politician from Bavaria. “I’ll build you a new bridge, then you’ll get to the shopping centre faster” – with an agenda like that he would have been believable. Fundamental rights, complex political considerations, a vision?  Nothing.

In the end, the discussion effectively took place between me and the responsible ministry official, as minister Friedrich simply had no clue about data protection. “Zeit” editors even wanted to publish it as a “three-person interview”, but the ministry prevented that. Some of the official’s statements were ascribed to the minister, and large parts simply could not be used.

Why am sharing this anecdote with you? Because is signifies what the problem is with German data protection politics: ministry officials take over the steering wheel because political leaders are floundering.

Both Interior Ministers – the current one, Thomas de Maizière, and his predecessor, Hans-Peter Friedrich – have allowed their civil servants to pervert European data protection into the opposite, and to do so in close cooperation with lobbyists. Past achievements such as data minimisation (the principle that as little data as possible should be collected), informed consent, and limiting data use to specific purposes (i.e. bank data must not be forwarded to advertisers), are set to be practically abolished.

The German Interior Ministry has a major part in this elimination of fundamental rights, as shown by internal documents. In our “LobbyPlag” project, Germany came out on top of a negative comparison of all EU Member States. No other country supported more unfavourable changes to the first three chapters – the alleged “motherland of data protection” even surpassed the UK, which ended up in second place on that negative chart. Germany, the European champions …

The Ministry of Justice, acting as the “shadow ministry” in the topic of data protection, is quietly voicing concerns – but the responsible ministers, of the German Liberals (FDP) in the last government and now of the Social Democrats (SPD), mostly kept their silence in the end. This despite the fact that the coalition treaty for the current parliament actually stipulated that the principles of data protection would be held on to.

Meanwhile, public announcements are made about the alleged “high German standards” for data protection. In fact, while the German Data Protection Act (Bundesdatenschutzgesetz, BDSG) may be the unchallenged European champion in terms of complexity, in several aspects it is actually weaker than the laws in many other European states – it might even go against European law in some aspects.

So instead of a “high level of data protection”, the massive exceptions and privileges laid out in the German law were brought to the Brussels table, and regularly they were extended even further. So when the Interior Ministers vowed that German protection levels should be pegged down all over Europe, this should probably be taken as a threat and not a promise.

Lobbyists, on the other hand, are ecstatic, having thought that Germany would prove to be hard to crack in the negotiations. “Dear fellow campaigners”, is how e‑mails between lobbyists and civil servants begin, and that seems to characterise the situation well.

“I would therefore ask you to let us know as soon as possible if you have one or two further ‘hard’ issues that we should also introduce at short notice”, the ministry writes to ask lobbyists for support – garnished with the latest (and nominally secret) documents from the negotiations.

While representatives of civil society such as consumer groups feel that they are not being heard, officials are in extensive communication with lobbyists or with members of the Internet Institute of Berlin’s Humboldt University. This institute is co-financed by Google and has announced “groundbreaking” research results about the future of data protection, which amount to a de facto abolition of fundamental principles – just, of course, to maximise the potential of the “startups” that everyone likes to bring to the fore.

In the end, the ministry does exactly what the industry wants.

The purview of the German Interior Ministry includes the police, but data protection as well. This conflict of interest, the exaggerated portrayal of German data protection laws, and third, the appalling closeness between civil servants and lobbyists – all that led to Germany becoming not a bastion of data protection in Europe, but one of the most eager saboteurs in the negotiations.

We live in a democracy. But if our representatives align their positions with lobby interests, not with the will of the people – if they mangle fundamental rights on a call from the industry – and if at the same time messages are brazenly shouted at the public that the “high level of German data protection” is to be taken to Brussels, then I can only congratulate the Ministers Hans-Peter Friedrich and Thomas de Maizière for the BigBrotherAward 2015 – they have truly earned it.

[Image above: NEXT Berlin, Image by Dan Taylor, Thomas de Maizière, cc-by-2.0 /, Hans-Peter Friedrich, cc-by-sa-2.0 / Komposition: Sebastian Lisken, cc-by-sa-3.0]