Germany Sets New Record for Waving Anti-Privacy Legislation Through Parliament

Milena Popova explains the story of Germany's new contraversial legislation on personal data.

Image: CC-BY-SA Andy Ducker

Digital rights is a mix of a number of very diverse issues. Most of us come to digital rights campaigning from one of these issues and then take on others as our passion, but there will always be one or two areas that we are just not particularly interested in. For a long time, ID cards has been one of those for me.
I find your attitude to ID cards is highly likely to depend on the cultural and political context you come from. A South African friend I spoke to recently saw them as a positively good thing - in apartheid South Africa having an ID card was a confirmation that you were a full citizen. Of course in some ways this just highlights the huge potential for abuse, but you can see where they’re coming from. As for me, having grown up in a number of countries where compulsory ID and the data collection that goes with it was the default, I was actually surprised this wasn’t the case when I moved to the UK. Legislation recently passed in Germany - one of those countries that lulled me into a false sense of security on the issue - highlights further possible abuses of centralised data collection by the state.

German citizens and residents have been obliged to register key data, including primary and any secondary residences, date of birth and similar, with the authorities since at least 1980. Due to Germany’s federal structure [PDF, German], the detailed regulations and infrastructure for this registration had originally been managed at a state rather than federal level. As part of German reunification in the 1990s, the federal government gained more power over registration regulations, however in practical terms it was still down to the state to implement federal regulations. The latest update to registration regulation, therefore, was intended to give federal institutions full control and establish a unified infrastructure for the management of registration data. Additional measures for the protection of citizens’ data, over and above the existing, fairly haphazard provisions, were part of early drafts of the bill but were reversed after lobbying from data brokering companies. The draft which was finally nodded through the Bundestag allowed the state to sell citizens’ data to private companies unless they specifically opted out and even removed an originally planned online opt-out process.

It is almost as if the Bundestag - the lower house of the German Parliament - had been trying to pull a fast one. Two readings of the bill, including votes, took only 57 seconds in total. Only 27 out of over 600 members even turned up, the remainder being too busy watching the Euro2012 semifinal match between Germany and Italy. This actually beats Britain’s own abysmal record on the second reading of the Digital Economy Bill, where at least a handful of MPs bothered to speak out against the controversial measures.

Yet contrary to all national stereotypes, once the football was over, the German people noticed what had been done behind their backs. With an increasingly visible Pirate Party, now represented in four state parliaments, digital rights are very much a hot topic in Germany and the bill as passed provoked a huge outcry both in social and mainstream media. This was followed by strong criticism from European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship Viviane Reding.

What followed was a political farce in which the German government, which had after all being responsible for the bill in the first place, was suddenly ”distancing” itself from the legislation. All eyes are now on the Bundesrat - the upper house - to fix this mess. In the meantime, those of us not too bothered about citizen registration and ID schemes have something to think about.

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She is also a member of ORG's board and continues to write for the ORGzine in a personal capacity. She tweets as @elmyra

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By Milena Popova on Jul 31, 2012

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