Following the fury over American surveillance, there now appear to be contradictions between the verbal support for privacy among European leaders and their own policy decisions.
Even with Europe in an uproar over intrusive United States surveillance, its leaders are looking for ways to slow down legislation aimed at preventing violations of privacy at home.
Two days after Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany telephoned U.S. President Barack Obama to complain about the monitoring of her cellphone by the United States, she joined fellow European leaders at a summit meeting in Brussels last week in agreeing not to rush into a new data privacy law, perhaps putting it off until 2015, after elections next May for a new European Parliament.
Kicking decisions into the future is a permanent feature of Europe’s cumbersome decision-making process. But Germany’s acquiescence in a British-led effort to freeze the privacy measures highlighted what appear to be contradictions between the verbal support for privacy among European leaders and their own policy decisions.
“Everyone is very eager to protect privacy in their public statements,” said Miriam Artino, a policy analyst at La Quadrature du Net, a French organisation that promotes digital rights and liberties. “But we can see that government leaders are not very enthusiastic and are looking for ways to delay the process.”
U.S. damage control
The disclosures of the National Security Agency (NSA)’s activities by whistle-blower Edward J. Snowden, have set off a fierce debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the proper balance between privacy and economic, security and other interests.
In an effort to control the damage, the Obama administration indicated on Monday that it was preparing to ban surveillance of friendly foreign leaders. Ms Merkel stayed silent about the shift, but officials in Berlin welcomed what apparently was a realisation that American economic interests, too, could be harmed if the monitoring persisted.
“The Americans know by now that this affair is very damaging to their own interests, which is evident in the reaction of the President, as well as the Senate,” the Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, told Germany’s N-TV news channel.
But increasingly, it has damaged the standing of European politicians as well, as they seek to play down the role their own security services have played in secret surveillance.
Britain’s intelligence service is long known to have cooperated closely with the NSA, carrying out surveillance on behalf of the U.S. The director of the NSA, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, testified on Tuesday before Congress that reports that his agency had collected the phone records of millions of Europeans were “completely false.”
Apparently referring to recent reports of extensive phone surveillance in France and Spain by the NSA, he said European intelligence services had themselves collected phone records in war zones and other areas outside their borders and shared them with the U.S.
Europe’s involvement in the spying game was given further credence by a former Foreign Minister of Greece, Theodoros Pangalos, who told a Greek radio station that his country’s intelligence services had listened in on the phone conversations of American ambassadors to Greece and Turkey in the 1990s.
In addition to what seemed to be the leaders’ reluctance to rein in too sharply activities countenanced by their own spy agencies, Europe’s slow-track approach to tightening the rules on privacy protection has faced a host of other hurdles.
Fallout of planned legislation
The proposed legislation in the European Parliament met with fierce opposition from business groups in the U.S. and Europe. There were also concerns that the issue would complicate negotiations on a wide-ranging trade agreement between Europe and the U.S., a pact that many European leaders champion as an important lever to help lift Europe’s sluggish economic growth.
Many members of the current Parliament and officials at the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, had wanted to push the law through before next summer. Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Parliament member who is in the vanguard of that push, said the summit meeting decision showed that Germany, the bloc’s weightiest economic and political power, had been eclipsed by other nations in protecting privacy.
“The Germans are not on the forefront when it comes to better privacy protection for its citizens, but the French, Italians and Spanish are,” said Mr. Albrecht.
Peter Schaar, the German federal data protection commissioner and a long-time critic of relatively lax American data privacy policies, took European leaders to task for delaying the proposed legislation. “Whoever delays this reform is endangering it in an irresponsible way,” said Mr. Schaar, appealing “also to our government” for deeds, not words.
Immediately after last week’s meeting in Brussels, Viviane Reding, an outspoken vice president of the European Commission and a proponent of tight privacy rules, insisted that France, Poland and Italy were still pushing for a strong law in 2014. Yet the legislation has been under consideration for two years and, caught by the crosswinds of rival national interests and corporate lobbying, the process has shown how hard it is for Europe to agree on protecting privacy, something nearly everyone supports in principle.
The U.S. has also complicated matters, lobbying hard in Brussels against aspects of the proposed rules that Washington and American businesses do not like.
Two years ago, it persuaded the commission to abandon a measure that would have shielded Europeans from requests by American authorities to share online data gathered by some of the biggest American Internet companies, which have many users in Europe.
Yet, in a serious reversal for Washington, that measure was restored after a panel of European Union lawmakers early last week backed a stipulation that could require American companies like Google and Yahoo to seek clearance from European officials before complying with United States warrants seeking private data. American technology companies worry that fines for breaking those rules and others would run as high as five per cent of a company’s global annual revenue or €100 million, about $137 million, whichever is higher.
Mr. Albrecht, the German lawmaker who was pushing for tough rules, said one reason Germany joined Britain in seeking to slow down the process was the strong influence of the technology industry.
“Lobbying also, at the level of the heads of state, plays a role,” Mr. Albrecht said. He referred to news reports that Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, had served as an adviser to David Cameron, the British Prime Minister.
One curious aspect of the furore over monitoring of the German Chancellor’s cellphone is that perhaps no European leader is as conflicted by the pitfalls and possibilities of digital technology as Ms Merkel. A trained scientist herself, she is keenly aware that Europe trails America in digital technology, and often reminds audiences that there are no Googles, Apples or Facebooks on a troubled Continent that is thus missing out on economic growth.
At the same time, she defends Germany’s strict data protection laws, which are an outgrowth of the Nazi and Communist past. Ms Merkel, raised in East Germany, is deeply familiar with government spying on citizens.
Her personal history also means that she always had a vision of the U.S. as a bastion of civil liberties, and seeing this vision dashed over the past week certainly helped fuel her evident anger with Washington.
Her quandary became clear in Brussels last week. On the one hand, with the furore over her cellphone, Ms Merkel was clearly concerned to fend off strong criticism at home that she had failed to react vigorously to last summer’s initial disclosures of extensive American eavesdropping on millions of Germans, and really became engaged only after her personal privacy was at stake.
On the other, she and other European leaders faced a decision on data protection rules gathering momentum in the European Parliament. Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, reported that Germany had played a critical role in adopting language that essentially postponed a decision on how to deal with U.S. digital companies that have clear obligations under American law to hand over data if subpoenaed. Ms. Merkel, the newsmagazine said, citing documents from the German Foreign Ministry, sided with Mr. Cameron to delay any regulation until 2015.
(Alison Smale and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.) — New York Times News Service
Keywords: Edward Snowden, NSA surveillance, PRISM, Obama administration, US foreign policy, US national security, WikiLeaks, NSA whistleblower, electronic snooping, US-French relations, US-German relations