Merkel seeks to let internet companies gather more personal data on Germans

German Chancellor Angela Merkel © Francois Lenoir
German Chancellor Angel Merkel wants to ease the country’s “restrictive” data protection laws to allow internet companies to collect more users’ personal data.

“A principle of the data closeness, which we were guided by for many years, cannot be today used as a guiding idea for the development of the new products,” Merkel said during an IT conference in the German western city of Saarbruecken on Thursday, adding that this principle has already been pushed to the limit.

According to German media, Germany’s data protection regulations have been long based on two principles dubbed “data economy” and “avoidance of revealing data.” Both concepts stipulate that internet companies should only collect and store a minimum of the users’ personal data and use then only if required.

Now, Merkel demands a paradigm shift in Germany’s approach to data protection by saying that it concerns not only “prevention of excesses” in data use but also creation of “free space” for companies that facilitates the development of new digital products.

The Chancellor also warned that a newly issued European Union Data Protection Regulation that came into effect in May should not be interpreted and applied “too restrictively” at a national level, adding that could otherwise make “big data management impossible.”

"We Europeans are known for banning things," she said, commenting on the issue.

“Big data management” comprises analyzing, collecting, assessing, using and marketing large amounts of data that, according to the German politicians, play an increasingly important role in the economic development. German leaders also called for reaching the “gigabit era” by facilitating transfer of large data amounts on a real-time basis.

US internet corporations, such as Google and Facebook, have earned billions based on ad revenues and the analysis of their users' data, the advocates of the new strategy stressed.

Heads of various internet and telecommunication companies welcomed the idea. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said he is impressed by the development of digital technologies in Germany and stressed that it is important to strike a balance between data protection and data availability.

Timotheus Hoettges, the chairman of the board of the Telecom, the biggest German and European telecommunication company, called “big data management” a “gift that could make society better.”

Merkel was also supported by the German Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who pushed for giving up on the traditional concept of data protection in favor of what he called “data sovereignty.”

According to Gabriel, “data sovereignty” would mean every person’s ability to independently decide, what personal data may stay open and what data should be protected. Merkel also advocated this idea by saying that a too strict approach to data protection hinders particularly patients’ data sharing between various medical specialists, even though medical data exchange between various healthcare facilities would be only rational and justified.

Meanwhile, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere stressed the importance of data storing in Germany. "Not saving data in Germany means that [it] will be used elsewhere," de Maiziere said, as cited by Deutsche Welle.

In the meantime, the German authorities’ initiative also provoked criticism from some experts and opposition politicians. Markus Beckedahl, a journalist and internet activist, slammed the idea by saying that it was actually an initiative promoted by the IT industry lobby and aimed at lowering the level of personal data protection.

The “paradigm shift” was also criticized by Jan-Philipp Albrecht, a member of the German Green Party, who said that such regulation change could amount to a violation of EU law. He also accused the government of protecting the interests of the IT lobby at ordinary people’s expense.

Two Green MPs, Konstantin von Notz und Oezcan Mutlu, also denounced the IT conference in Saarbruecken as a “senseless show, in which various ministers just played their roles.” They also stressed that civil society can in fact exert only a “very limited” influence on the development of the government’s strategy in the digital field.

The conference in Saarbruecken was attended by more than 1,000 politicians, businessmen, scholars and civil society activists.

Earlier, Germany repeatedly opposed personal data collection by such companies as Google or Facebook. Just in September, German authorities ordered Facebook to stop collecting data on WhatsApp users. At the same time, German law enforcement repeatedly requested Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram to share user data.