There is an episode in the first season of West Wing in which the intended candidate for an open seat at the US Supreme Court, previously courted and won over for this job in a long and difficult fight, is dumped within minutes by President Bartlet and the senior White House staffers. The reason: An unsigned research note he wrote as a young scholar for the Harvard Law Journal which shows that he sees privacy as not protected by the US constitution, and thus easily subject to possible legal restrictions.
Privacy and data protection have been a big issue in german politics during the 80s. A legendary decision by the Federal Constitutional Court in 1983 granted the german citizens the “right of informational self-determination”. Countless laws and regulations securing that right have been introduced. German data protection was among the best in the world.
In the subsequent years of Realpolitik the topic was more and more neglected. In 1998 the Green Party kicked out their parliamentary expert Manuel Kiper to secure the unpopular but powerful minister Jürgen Trittin a seat in the Bundestag. In the aftermath of September 11, many laws have been passed endangering the hard-won victories of the data-protection advocates, the latest addition being the (still pending) BKA law, granting the german federal police wide-ranging powers. The rise of the Internet with its inherent transparency also added to the decline of privacy.
Only recently there has been a recurring awareness of the topic’s importance, partly due to the untiring work of the Bielefeld-based activists Rena Tangens and padeluun, who every year issue the negative Big Brother Award and recently have organized a series of demonstrations in the capital Berlin (and elsewhere), the last of which under the motto “Freiheit statt Angst” (freedom instead of fear) was a huge success with many thousands of participants.
And now, exactly 10 years after the scandalous dumping of Manuel Kiper by the Green Party, the German Social Democratic Party, the most miserable among the many miserable german political parties, has done a similar thing to their renowned parliamentary expert for all matters concerning Internet and privacy, Jörg Tauss. After an internal fight the veteran politician has given up the responsibility for the topic and laid down his seat in a relevant parliamentary commission. His successor will be a no-name backbencher who not only supported the BKA law but has also admittedly seen privacy as a non-topic until this year.
Let’s quote Sam Seaborn, White House Deputy Communications Director in the wonderful West Wing, giving a little speech in the Oval Office:
“In the 20s and 30s it was the role of government. In the 50s and 60s it was civil rights. The next 20 years it will be about privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. Talking about cell phones. Talking about health records. And who’s gay and who’s not. Besides, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?”