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In Germany, Obama Encounters a Tough Crowd for Defense of Surveillance

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, June 19 2013

(Digitale Gesellschaft/Flickr)

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel found themselves in a verbal minefield when it came to an ongoing controversy over U.S. National Security Agency surveillance, which loomed large over Obama's visit to Germany Tuesday and Wednesday.

In a press conference and speech delivered at Brandenburg Gate, President Obama defended American monitoring of Internet communications to his European audience and spoke of a need to balance security and freedom as Merkel, at least in public, said that Germany stood with the United States. And the German chancellor drew sharp words from online activists when she suggested that the Internet was "new territory ... to all of us."

Small groups of protesters on the ground in Germany also criticized the surveillance measures in demonstrations timed to coincide with Obama's visit, and their concerns carried outsized weight online in a country where privacy rights are taken very seriously.

The question about the leaked surveillance measures was one of the first to come up during the leaders' joint press conference Wednesday. Obama told the German press, as he has told American reporters, that he worked to "scrub" the practices of the NSA and increase protections for privacy. He also repeated the administration's position, first unveiled in testimony before Congress on Tuesday by intelligence officials, that more than 50 threats have been averted thanks to those programs.

"When it comes to the Internet and email, as Chancellor Merkel said, we're now in an Internet age and we have to make sure that our administrative rules and our protections catch up with this new cyber world," he said. "What I can say to everybody in Germany and everybody around the world is this applies very narrowly to leads that we have obtained on issues related to terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else," Obama later said. "This is not a situation where we simply go into the Internet and start searching any way that we want. This is a circumscribed, narrow system directed at us being able to protect our people. And all of it is done under the oversight of the courts."

The president also repeated a pledge first uttered by other administration officials to seek to declassify more information about these programs.

But for German online activists the defining word came in Merkel's opening remarks to the press conference, when she used a word meaning new, uncharted or virgin territory to refer to the Internet.

"We talked about questions of the Internet in the context of PRISM. We talked at great length about the new possibilities and about also the new threats that the Internet opens up to all of us," she said. "The Internet is new territory, uncharted territory to all of us. And it also enables our enemies. It enables enemies of a free, liberal order, to use it, to abuse it, to bring a threat to all of us, to threaten our way of life. And this is why we value cooperation with the United States on questions of security."

Social Democrats, online activists, members of the Pirate Party and others sprung on her supposition that the Internet was "new" to portray Merkel as technologically backwards in an election year.

"Well I actually feel quite comfortable in this Neuland," Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel posted on Twitter.

On Facebook, the Pirate Party quickly posted the sound bite and a photo of Merkel looking somewhat perplexed at small computer screen, next to a young woman, and the tagline "Am I already online?," echoing an old 90s AOL ad campaign in Germany. At the bottom it says. "Somebody for whom the Internet is still Neuland in 2013 should not be deciding the future of Germany."

A columnist for Die Zeit also suggested the word choice was a weak justification for broad surveillance, and wrote that it mirrored a weak Internet policy of Merkel's government that sees the web as a source of danger rather than of potential.

Some observers, including among influential media, did take the opposite view, pointing out that the Internet is still uncharted as far as the law is concerned in many respects. Later, Merkel Press Secretary Steffen Seibert felt the need to jump in on Twitter: "Regarding the Neuland-discussion: What is at issue for the chancellor -- The Internet is legal and political new territory, we sense that daily in political dealings."

Merkel wasn't the only one to cause a fuss. Obama also took some flak for his remarks at the Brandenburg Gate, in which he said — in response to protests against government surveillance — that leaders are obliged to "listen to the voices who disagree with us."


"We must accept the challenge that all of us in democratic governments face," the president said, "to listen to the voices who disagree with us; to have an open debate about how we use our powers and how we must constrain them; and to always remember that government exists to serve the power of the individual, and not the other way around. That's what makes us who we are, and that's what makes us different from those on the other side of the wall."

"'Listen to the voices of those we disagree with' can be interpreted in different ways in the context of #PRISM," wrote Mathias Schindler, a project manager for Wikimedia Germany.

"'Listen to the voices of those we disagree with.' - That can also be understood in the wrong way. #prism. #obamainberlin," wrote Daniel Mack, a net policy spokesperson for the Greens in the state of Hessen.

Journalist Richard Gutjahr wrote, "‘We must listen to the voices’ has that light ambigous touch of a double meaning. #Imjustsaying #obama

Ahead of Obama's visit, the New York Times' Roger Cohen had warned in a column titled "Obama's German Storm" that the President would face challenges in addressing the German public in the context of the surveillance revelations.

"No nation, after the Nazis and the Stasi, has such intense feelings about personal privacy as Germany," Cohen noted.

The front page of today's German tabloid Bild included several mock suggestions for lines Obama might deliver, including "I know what you did on Facebook yesterday."

Tuesday, members of the activist group Digital Gesellschaft demonstrated by the old Checkpoint Charlie against the surveillance practices under the tagline "Yes We Scan," linking Obama to Stasi practices and suggesting that "Privacy ends here" with entrance into the old "American Sector."

Members of the Pirate Party also planned to demonstrate on Wednesday closer to the site of the speech, although reports indicate that widespread road blocks were complicating many demonstration efforts, on a day that also saw very high temperatures in Berlin.