Rolf Gössner

Farewell to the BigBrotherAward

Dear friends, dear members of the jury, dear Digitalcourage team!

Today marks a first for me – and for you too. For the first time since the start of the BigBrotherAwards, 21 years ago, at today’s negative awards gala here in Bielefeld I will not be offering a laudatory speech to one of the many violators of privacy, or “data leeches”, in the public sector. My personal total is going to remain at twenty laudations, delivered from the year 2000 to 2020. It’s been a long and quite varied journey, and a process of growth during which the BigBrotherAwards became broader and more diverse, more mature, and older, while the same happened to me – well, I grew older anyway.

Earlier this year, I retired from my position in the BigBrotherAwards jury as a member and representative of the International League for Human Rights. I made this decision with a heavy heart, as I have always enjoyed working with the jury and with Digitalcourage, and I continue to regard this as an important project – increasingly so, in fact, as digitalisation continues to be pushed forward in the state, society, and business.

The decision was made a bit easier after 20 years only because I did not want to end up as a civil rights “fossil” or “veteran”, and because I have recently finished a book that is something like a resume of my work for the BigBrotherAwards. It reflects and documents my part of the German BigBrotherAwards’ history. It is titled, “Datenkraken im Öffentlichen Dienst” (data leeches in the public sector).

The book retraces the dangerous path towards the preventive-authoritarian security and surveillance state, exemplified by the twenty “awardees” whom I have had the honour to “laud”: The German government, the Chancellory, the Ministry of Defence, former Interior Ministers Otto Schily (SPD/Social Democrats) and Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU/Conservatives), further interior ministers in the federal government as well as in federal states, the Conference of Interior Ministers of the German federal states, the Federal Military (Bundeswehr), the Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt), Police forces at the federal and state levels, Germany’s foreign intelligence service BND, the interior intelligence agencies (called “Verfassungsschutz” which means “protection of the constitution”) at the federal and state levels, the Federal Prosecutor, parliamentary groups of the CDU and Green parties, and the EU’s Council of Ministers. Their “security legislation” and “anti-terror politics”, their excessive and escalating surveillance and armament schemes can be understood as digital milestones in a fatal development, advanced “in the name of security” while retracting liberties – and surely freedom will pay the price.

We “awarded”, or rather castigated those responsible: For their shared legal and political responsibility for the US drone wars, for legalising state trojans and electronic shackles, for digital armament toward cyber war, for the “lifetime achievements” of that uncontrollable data leech that calls itself “protection of the constitution”, for mass surveillance as part of the global info wars of intelligence agencies, for racist screenings by the Federal Police, for continually eroding the limits of state powers, for the EU’s terror list, for preventive telecommunications monitoring by police in the unfathomable zone of suspicion that precedes probable cause, or for Interior Minister Otto Schily’s legislative “anti-terror packages” after 9/11.

And how did those responsible react to such “accolades”? Rather than appearing in person to receive the artistic award statue and face public critique, almost everyone resorted to, as Rena Tangens has called it, “the typical harmonic triad: ignore, deny, belittle”. This was particularly true for state actors, in other words, “my” awardees. Over twenty years, not a single minister, no proponent of “security politics”, no head of any security agency has the democratic guts to openly face the jury and its critique and our audience. The only mitigating factor was the broad response we had from the media – and, not least, the fact that among the many awards we bestowed on business, society and the state, it was a disproportionate amount of “state data leeches” who went on to receive the audience award, because those witnessing the gala found them “particularly impressive, astonishing, shocking, revolting”.

While we could normally not prevent these data scandals, faults and aberrations in the public sector, we did at least inform the political debate, and contributed to the formation of critical opinion. Also, we were instrumental in helping to remove, or partially remove, a number of particularly egregious measures by way of the constitutional courts. This was achieved when in 2010, the first attempt to retain telecommunications metadata without cause for the entire population was declared unconstitutional. We are still waiting for a ruling on the second attempt at telecommunications data retention and on the state trojans in criminal procedure law.

After twenty years of award experience and memories, the time seems right to say farewell to the BigBrotherAwards for personal reasons – partly because I want to avoid repeating myself. I had already decided to retire from the board of the International League for Human Rights due to overload, and earlier this year I turned in my license to practice law. Just before that, at the end of 2020, I had finally won my own lawsuit against the German state, concerning the four decades of observation that I had been subjected to from the “protection of the constitution”, the aforementioned interior intelligence agency. The Federal Administrative Court finally and ultimately ruled that the observation of my person had been unconstitutional from the start – after 15 years of legal proceedings. All these are good reasons to turn over a new leaf and focus on new priorities. It is definitely not a time to contemplate retirement.

Some concluding remarks about the BigBrotherAwards: As you know, the intention was to call out boundless collection and misuse of data, escalating control and surveillance in the state, in society and business. The idea is that we place these in the public spotlight and thus raise public awareness for the value of privacy. As the pervasive digitalisation of all areas of our lives proceeds, privacy is increasingly in danger of getting lost in the process. We aim to inform the political debate about the fatal consequences that follow when the private sphere is impaired, and when personality rights and informational self-determination are violated. This always follows the Digitalcourage motto of fighting for a world worth living in the digital age, and against the surveillance state as well as surveillance capitalism. The BigBrotherAwards are more than negative awards or “Oscars for data leeches” – they are offered in the service of enlightenment, a seeding ground for counter developments proposed by civil society.

Let me close with a word to the organisers: I am truly happy to have been part of this success story from the start and to have been able to play a part in shaping and developing this project – together with the ever dedicated initiators, Rena Tangens and padeluun, with the fabulous teams at Digitalcourage, including our “text mentor” and editor Claudia Fischer and the translation team around Sebastian Lisken, and with the other jury members from the cooperating NGOs working for privacy and civil and human rights.

A heartfelt thank you to all of you for the fantastic and productive time – and thank you also to our loyal and highly motivated audiences. I wish you all the best for a future worth living for in the digital age, for digital self-defence, but also for invigorated fundamental rights and a vivid democracy, both of which sadly have suffered greatly in the Corona crisis. It seems that there is even more work ahead – and even from the outside I will continue to support you to the best of my abilities.

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