German Interior Minister on Web 2.0 Privacy Those on 'Social Networking Sites Want Their Data To Be Linked'

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, 56, discusses privacy in the age of Web 2.0, the need for people to take greater personal responsibility and his gripes with Facebook's Byzantine terms of use agreement.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière: "Everyone involved -- users, companies and the government -- carries a responsibility for the protection of privacy and safety the Net."
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German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière: "Everyone involved -- users, companies and the government -- carries a responsibility for the protection of privacy and safety the Net."


SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, four members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet are addressing German Internet policy concerns -- at times screaming loudly at Google or Facebook and at times in a quiet dialogue with the Net community. Is the government really on the same page when it comes to its policies?

De Maizière: When it comes to the Internet, a more systematic approach is needed instead of singular actions. The German government will present its overall strategy in the autumn. I am primarily concerned with identifying laws that need to be changed. The Federal Data Protection Act, which is much older than the Internet, already includes things such as the right to information, the right to have information deleted or blocked and the right to object. In terms of the Internet, though, some regulations need to be expanded, and it must be made easier to apply others -- in all areas of law.

SPIEGEL: Do we have a handle on online companies that breach German law but circumvent the authorities by hosting their servers in other countries?

De Maizière: This is a major problem. We rely on agreements with other countries in deleting child pornography on the Internet, for example. But in addition to modernized German laws, we need international agreements in Europe and, ideally, beyond.

SPIEGEL: What would you like to change?

De Maizière: Everyone involved -- users, companies and the government -- carries a responsibility for the protection of privacy and safety of the Net. Most Internet users are not careful enough and disregard even the simplest safety precautions. They are responsible for this themselves. In the case of children, the parents are responsible. At the same time, Internet service providers must be held to greater account by the government. We could, for example, require computer-makers to only produce hardware with built-in virus protection software. We could demand that Internet providers make their terms of use understandable for everyone and not hide a complicated sentence on data protection on page 595 of their terms. Instead, users should have to give explicit consent before a company can use their data. What Facebook offers its customers is far too complicated.

SPIEGEL: In Germany the right of the individual to decide what happens with his or her information is a basic right. Is it the government's responsibility to protect this basic right?

De Maizière: This basic right the individual holds was primarily installed to protect the individual from incursion by the government. When it comes to people's private lives, the government has only limited obligations to protect them -- otherwise we would wind up with paternalism. People who register with a social networking site want their data to be linked. For example, a person who is about to move wants to know what kind of area they are moving to, how high the rents are and how many Facebook friends live there. In a free society, free citizens determine how much information they provide on the Internet.

SPIEGEL: Should companies be allowed to conduct business, unfettered, with user data?

De Maizière: No, every Internet users has to know what will happen with his or her data. The right to information is essential.

SPIEGEL: How can that be implemented?

De Maizière: We could, for example, demand that companies that provide entirely digital services ask their customers after a certain period of time if they should delete their data. A photo shop, for instance, that leaves traces of one's vacation pictures online, would be required to tell its customers that their data will be deleted automatically after one year, unless they explicitly object.

SPIEGEL: It doesn't sound like you are very close to drafting legislation.

De Maizière: Wait and see. Sustainable Internet policies cannot be had through the click of a mouse.

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