With the NSA spying scandal continuing to make headlines in Europe, the German Justice Minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has raised the possibility of new, tangible measures to punish corporations that participate in American spying activities. In an interview with Die Welt, the liberal Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called for the creation of EU-wide rules to regulate the protection of information, and said that, once those rules are in place, “United States companies that don’t abide by these standards should be denied doing business in the European market.”
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said that a package of EU measures is required in order to fight “the widespread spying of foreign spy services” and that German data protection laws should be a yardstick for the rest of the European Union — German privacy laws are considerably tighter than those of the United States and much of Europe.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich also raised corporate accountability in July, when he suggested requiring European firms to report any data they hand over to foreign countries. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who is running for reelection in September as part of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, did not further specify which kinds of penalties she would like American companies to face, though it seems unlikely that Europe would completely ban companies like Google, which dominate the online search market, or Facebook from doing business. Both of those companies were implicated in the documents leaked by former intelligence worker Edward Snowden.
It is the latest development in a German election season that has come to be dominated by online privacy issues. Chancellor Angela Merkel has faced widespread criticism from the opposition for her handling of the NSA scandal and Peer Steinbrück, the Chancellor candidate of the opposition SPD party, recently told German television channel ZDF that Merkel should demand written assurances from the Americans they will respect German laws and interests and not engage in industrial espionage.
In another interview with Die Welt, former German High Court Justice Hans-Jürgen Papier defended the current government in its handling of the privacy debate. The state has a “basic responsibility to protect its citizens from the attacks of foreign powers,” he said, but it “can only be responsible for doing things that it has the legal power, and is able, to do.” It is increasingly easy, he said, for countries to impinge on the freedoms of the citizens of other countries, and those who are spied on have little recourse to defend themselves. In response, Papier called for a new global agreement on data protection.
In recent weeks, the German foreign intelligence service (BND) has also come under attack for its own close cooperation with the NSA. In the latest of several SPIEGEL revelations about the agency, the BND was discovered to have provided the Americans with the metadata for millions of phone conversations, emails and text messages, and to have given them copies of two German digital spy systems named Mira4 and Veras. Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger also addressed this news in her interview, saying “the BND must finally put all the facts on the table.”