The head of German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom has called for Europe to do more to protect privacy and combat international spying. Rene Obermann's words come as eight of the world's largest technology companies appealed to President Barack Obama and the US Congress to enact sweeping changes to spying laws and put a stop to mass collection of data.
Obermann, who became chairman of the Deutsche Telekom board in 2006, told German business daily Handelsblatt that politicians in the European Union are not doing enough in response to the spying scandal uncovered by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden earlier this year. The documents from his archive include allegations that the NSA and the British intelligence agency GCHQ hacked into internal connections between data centers belonging to Google and Yahoo, while millions of pieces of data were gathered. It was also revealed that the NSA was keeping track of mobile phones across the world -- and had even eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obermann pulled no punches in criticizing the data gathering carried out by intelligence agencies in the US and beyond, and said: "I was angered most of all because confidence in two pillars of our society, free communication and privacy, has been shaken to such an extent. I think what is happening is in the long term even dangerous to democracy."
What is needed, Obermann said, is for the European Commission to fundamentally alter the relationship between Europe and the US, or at least its footing. For example, he called for a renegotiation of the Safe Harbor agreement allowing American companies doing business in the EU to transfer personal data like birthplace, telephone numbers and email addresses back to the US. "It's negligent that so little is happening here," he said.
Deutsche Telekom itself has been at the forefront of efforts to create a "German Internet" where data does not go outside national borders.
Ultimately, Obermann believes Europe should try to enforce its stricter rules -- perhaps harmonized around those currently in force in Germany -- on the rest of the world. "If companies from the US or any other country want to do business here in Europe, then they must abide by our standards," he added. "And that also makes economic espionage difficult. I therefore don't understand this mealy mouthed behavior."
The eight tech giants that are signatories to the open letter to President Obama and Congress, which has also appeared in newspaper adverts, would seem to agree that action is needed. In the letter, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn and Yahoo underline their support of radical reforms which have already been floated in Washington.
"The balance in many countries has tipped too far in the favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual -- rights that are enshrined in our constitution," the letter says. "This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for change."
Five Principles for Surveillance Reform
Along with a letter, the tech companies also published five principles for reforming government surveillance:
• Limiting the authority of governments to collect information
• Greater oversight and accountability
• More transparency about governmental demands on tech companies
• Respecting the free flow of information
• The creation of a "robust, principled and transparent framework" for requests for data across jurisdictions.
The Silicon Valley companies are also acting from self-interest, as a loss of confidence could affect them badly. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide use their services through email, smartphones, networks and chat programs. According to the Guardian, the letter is the largest concerted action yet by the industry.
But it is not the first -- American tech companies have already asked the US government several times to be allowed to publish details of how many requests they had received under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) per year. FISA was adopted as part of the Patriot Act and enables intelligence agencies to force companies to release data using secret court orders. Such arrangements are classified as secret so that the company concerned cannot publish any details.
The eight companies now challenging Washington still face criticism that they accepted this practice without resistance -- only Yahoo had even once complained about such a request for information.