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Merkel wants EU data protection pact

Responding to criticism, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has called for a strict European agreement on data protection.

Story highlights

  • Merkel called for strict agreement requiring ISPs to reveal usage of personal data
  • Law would unify data protection rules among EU member states
  • Merkel has faced criticism for failing to protect net users from alleged surveillance

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has called for a strict European agreement on data protection requiring all internet service providers to reveal what personal information they have stored, and to whom they have made it available.

The fundamental law should ensure that companies such as Facebook and Google would be subject to the same strict privacy rules in all EU member states, and not simply obey national legislation in the country where they are registered, she said.

Ms Merkel has faced sharp criticism in recent days for failing to take decisive action to protect German internet users from the comprehensive surveillance of internet and telecommunications traffic alleged to have been conducted by US and British intelligence services.

The issue has blown up into a significant point of difference in the German election campaign. The chancellor was accused at the weekend by her leading challenger, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democratic party, of breaking her oath of office in failing to protect German citizens.

She responded in a set-piece television interview on Sunday night, placing the whole question firmly on the European agenda, and challenging other EU member states such as Britain and Ireland, with less rigorous data protection laws than Germany, to back tougher regulation.

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"Internet companies which are operating in Europe, such as Facebook and Google, must give . . . European countries the information about whom they have given data to," she said.

    The first requirement was to complete negotiations on a common European data protection law, on which Germany would take "a very strict position". She said that although Germany had its own "very good data protection law", a company like Facebook which was registered in Ireland was only subject to Irish law.

    Other European countries, such as the UK, had "a very different philosophy" about data protection, and very different laws granting intelligence services access to communications traffic. "We must have an intensive discussion to discover what is reasonable," she said. The German position would be that "the end does not always justify the means" in collecting intelligence information.

    In the clearest indication to date that Ms Merkel believes the US may have contravened Germany's data protection laws, she said: "I expect a clear promise from the American government, that in the future they will observe German law on German territory. We are friendly partners. We are in a defence alliance and we must be able to rely on each other."

    Ms Merkel said that Germany had been given a firm assurance by the US administration that no German companies had been targeted for industrial espionage. Questioned on reports that her own telephone had been bugged, she said she had no knowledge of it, but that was the sort of information German officials are currently seeking in talks in Washington.

    German public concern about data protection, and the allegations of widespread US and UK internet snooping made by Edward Snowden, the former US intelligence contractor now seeking asylum in Russia, has yet to dent Ms Merkel's current lead in the German election campaign, but the chancellor is leaving nothing to chance.

    According to the latest weekend polls, 70 days before the vote on September 22, Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union has slipped by one or two percentage points, but is still supported by some 41 per cent, well in front of Mr Steinbrück's SPD, on 26 per cent.

    Indeed, Allensbach, one of Germany's most cautious pollsters, now has Ms Merkel's current CDU-Free Democrat coalition with a majority to return to power. It puts the FDP on 6.5 per cent, giving the centre-right combination 46.5 per cent, compared with just 38 per cent for the SPD and their Green party allies.