A few months ago, Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In November 1989, peaceful demonstrators not only overcame the decades-long artificial divide of Germany, but also put an end to an oppressive regime infamous for its tightly woven network of state surveillance. Letters were routinely opened and resealed, and phone calls often started with a notorious click, indicating that there was an extra listener on the line.
Today, in our liberal society, this reality of life in East Germany seems almost unimaginable. Germans were therefore particularly shocked when they learned in 2013, following the revelations by Edward Snowden, that their digital communications were being secretly intercepted on a mass scale.
All over the world, trust in the Internet as a free, safe, and open space was shaken. Had we been naïve to believe in the Internet as a promoter of dialogue, transparency, participation, and democracy? Did we ignore the risks attached to the digitalization of our world? Could a tool of freedom also serve as a means of surveillance and illicit control?
Human rights advocates have been voicing these and other concerns. In July 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a groundbreaking report on the right to privacy in the digital age.
Internet users worrying about data protection are also raising critical questions and confronting the private companies that manage the bulk of “big data.” Unless companies can provide satisfying answers to these clients, their businesses will suffer from a lack of trust.
Trust has been further eroded through cybercrimes, which have affected individuals, corporations, and even entire countries. Terrorist groups use cyberspace to spread their hateful ideology and plot attacks. This introduces a dangerous element of instability into international affairs.
We cannot be indifferent to these concerns if we want to conserve the Internet as a space of opportunity. Fortunately, an international consensus has emerged that rules and laws must apply to cyberspace – whether with a view to cybercrimes committed by non-state actors or states’ interference with individual rights.
In a hallmark resolution initiated by Brazil and Germany in 2013, all 193 member states of the United Nations recognized the key principle that the rules we apply offline must also be followed online. The resolution emphasizes that unlawful and arbitrary surveillance and the interception of communications violates the human right to privacy and may interfere with the freedom of expression.
Intense and often controversial discussions leading up to the resolution demonstrated existing divides, but also led to important convergences. There is growing international recognition that legitimate security interests of states and the individual’s right to privacy must be brought into a reasonable and more transparent balance – otherwise, we risk turning into Orwellian states, where every step of every citizen can be monitored in order to prevent any conceivable crime.
Germany will continue to engage with all relevant stakeholders – governments, the private sector, scientists, and non-governmental organizations – to identify shared interests and develop joint solutions to the inherent challenges of technological advances. As the only international organization with a truly global membership, the United Nations will have to play a major role.
Together with Brazil and other partners, Germany advocates that the UN Human Rights Council issue a mandate in March 2015 for a special rapporteur to lead and structure the international debate. This will ensure that the topic remains firmly anchored in the international agenda, an objective that all UN member states expressed in a follow-up resolution on the right to privacy in December 2014.
Our goal is clear: preserving the digital world as an open, secure, free, and trustworthy space. It will not be easy, but the first promising steps have been taken.