Historically, Germany is no stranger to mass surveillance, and most Germans will readily acknowledge that reality. The country prides itself on commemorating the civil liberties abuses perpetuated by the Stasi and Nazi regimes, which relied on a huge network of informers — and in the case of the Stasi, also extensive bugging of its citizenry — all to monitor the population and arrest dissidents.
Yet, Germany is once again turning to the tactics used by these previous regimes to repress its opposition, but with more power to surveil the populace than ever before in the electronic age. This time around, these tactics are being deployed against critics of the liberal establishment and its support for identity politics, progressivism, mass immigration, and controversial coronavirus measures, including mandatory vaccinations.
While Merkel’s government initiated many of these policies, the country’s new left-wing government has signaled it will accelerate many of these trends of both surveillance and censorship.
150,000 hate crime criminal cases expected
A large part of the German population is expected to face criminal charges related to “hate” in the coming years. The Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) expects around 150,000 criminal proceedings per year for hate crimes on the Internet due to the Network Enforcement Act, which will be tightened from next month, with the BKA expecting 250,000 hate crime reports.
Up until now, social networks were only required to delete content that was deemed illegal. The new regulation now obliges them to report hateful comments to the BKA.
The central reporting office for criminal content on the Internet (ZMI) will start work in February, the spokesman announced, and will be staffed with 200 officials.
Although Google and Facebook have voiced their opposition to the new law, which the firms say is disproportionate, they have little power to stop the law.
The question then becomes what defines a hate crime on the web? Obvious calls to violence will undoubtedly be prosecuted, but what about criticism of mass migration or pointing out foreign overrepresentation in German crime statistics, especially for serious crimes like rape – just to name two potential examples. Will such criticisms constitute hate crimes?
The reality is that this law will most surely be abused if the past is any guide. Take for instance the recent case of Berlin’s left-wing mayor, Michael Müller, of the Social Democrat party (SPD), who ordered a police raid on a Facebook user for posting an immigration-critical photo that targeted Müller:
The case dates back to April 14, 2019, when a Facebook user under the name of “Karina Fitza” shared a doctored photo of Mayor Michael Müller which suggested he wanted to relocate all of the migrants who’ve been picked up by NGO ships to Berlin.
The shared image, which the woman had discovered earlier on Twitter, clearly offended the Social Democratic mayor, prompting him to contact Berlin’s Chief Prosecutor Jöorg Raupach and demand that criminal action be taken against the social media user. Earlier this month, the letter sent to Raupach from Müller — titled “Criminal complaint by the superior” — was made public in a report published by the German newspaper Die Welt.
After determining Karina Fitza’s real identity, the public prosecutor’s office easily obtained a warrant from a district judge to search the woman’s home. On the morning of Feb. 20, 2020, at 6 a.m., five officers from the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) conducted a raid on the woman’s apartment and seized two mobile telephones and two tablets. According to a report from Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg 24, the woman now suffers from a sleep disorder as a result of the trauma she was forced to experience on the day of the early morning raid.
In a country gearing up new plans to accept hundreds of thousands of new immigrants every year, are those who reject such a society-altering plan and create content protesting it on social media about to be charged criminally, or even worse, have their houses raided?
It is not the only instance, either. Another SPD politician, this time in Hamburg, ordered the raid of a Twitter user who referred to him as a “Pimmel,” which refers to male genitalia in German. Andy Grote, the interior and sports minister for the city of Hamburg, claimed in a post that people celebrating in large numbers in the Schanzenviertel district of Hamburg were “ignorant” due to the Covid-19 crisis, although Grote himself was forced to pay a €1,000 fine for celebrating at a pub in violation of Covid-19 rules earlier in the crisis. When an anonymous user on Twitter responded in a post that Grote was a “Pimmel,” police raided that user’s house at 6 a.m in September 2021.
The user recounted the incident in a tweet, saying he and his two children were awoken to tactical police officers inside his home.
“My house was searched at 6:00 this morning. Six officers in the apartment,” wrote the suspect, who goes by the screen name ZooStPauli .“They know there are two young children living in this household. Good morning, Germany.”
The police raid sparked outrage in Germany, and the hashtag #Pimmelgate began to trend on Twitter. Although calls were issued for his resignation, including from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), he remains interior minister. In response, the public prosecutor’s office in Hamburg spoke to the Washington Post about the raid and claimed it was investigating an online “insult,” which can be punished under the German code.
It is important to remember that users using terms as simple as “Pimmel,” using satire, creating immigration-critical content, or simply making a comment that those in power are insulted by, could soon be made into criminals. The estimate of 150,000 such cases every year is truly enormous. Let us not forget that Germany is creating a 200-person staffed bureau that will be responsible for policing online content. The people working at this bureau will no doubt have a powerful incentive to justify their existence by increasing prosecutions and finding “hate crimes” at every turn, which will no doubt instill the desired amount of fear in a country where the vast majority of people, according to polling, say they do not feel comfortable voicing their opinion on political topics.
German opposition under constant surveillance
In four German states, the opposition Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has been labeled a threat to the constitution by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The BfV ruling means the domestic intelligence agency is legally able to read the emails and monitor the phone calls of every single AfD party member in those four states. The BfV can also deploy informants into the party’s ranks.
It is hard to exaggerate how much power the BfV has to spy on citizens and effectively throttle a political party from functioning, especially in a country that prides itself on its label of liberal democracy. Once using intelligence methods reserved for fringe neo-Nazis, green eco-terrorists, and radical Islamic groups — many of which were issuing direct calls to violence or organizing actual extremist plots — the German state has now applied intrusive and blanket surveillance methods on a party that garners votes from millions of law-abiding Germans.
The BfV’s policy of mass surveillance was implemented under the Merkel government during a time when the AfD was the largest opposition party in the country. This policy does not discriminate, either. All members of the AfD are believed to be guilty for simply being members, which means thousands of perfectly innocent citizens are under active surveillance. While the BfV claims that the party has a number of extremist members, the current surveillance policy makes no distinction between “normal” members and whatever small amount of members could potentially be labeled extremist. To date, no AfD member has been arrested or convicted for organizing a terror attack. Even if there were such instances, the AfD has always preached voting as a method for political change and rejected violence.
In reality, AfD is the party most actively targeted with political violence in all of Germany, with members assaulted, issued death threats, and on numerous occasions, targeted with arson attacks. Besides state repression, the party deals with very real far-left threats, and a blackout on news coverage in mainstream media if such attacks occur. Within the media, the AfD has been shut out of the country’s powerful political talk shows and debate panels.
If Poland or Hungary ever took such aggressive measures against opposition parties in their own countries, the EU would open a rule-of-law infringement case, and the global press would crank out stories about attacks on democracy from the Hungarian and Polish governments.
In fact, both Hungary and Poland have become targets in the media for allegedly using Israeli spyware to spy on the opposition, although both countries steadfastly deny the accusations. Nevertheless, Germany has received virtually no criticism for openly monitoring its opposition on a mass scale. At the same time, most Germans refuse to tolerate the idea even for a moment that double standards are at play, or that a dangerous surveillance state is being deployed against the establishment’s political enemies.
In fact, last year, the BfV briefly placed the entire AfD party under surveillance before federal elections before a court overturned the designation. However, the matter is not closed, and the BfV may soon gain this enormous power over the entire party this year.
Telegram on the chopping block
One of the fastest-growing forums for those with alternative political opinions is the encrypted Telegram app. However, Germany’s new government has made it clear they want an EU-wide ban on the app, and just this week indicated they were not ruling out a ban at the national level either.
“We cannot rule this out,” said Nancy Faeser to Die Zeit weekly. “A shutdown would be grave and clearly a last resort. All other options must be exhausted first.”
Die Zeit writes, however, that such a ban would be problematic: “Theoretically, network blocks that are more or less effective would also be conceivable. This would, however, follow a similar path as authoritarian states.”
Other countries that have banned Telegram include Russia and China — two countries that Germany has routinely accused of authoritarian behavior. Russia has since reinstated the app due to the fact that it is so difficult to ban. During the anti-government protests against Belarus last year, Germany’s public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, lauded the app when it was being used by the opposition in that country. However, that tune quickly changed once the opposition in Germany began using the app.
Again, the German government claims that the app is being used to spread conspiracy theories and far-right ideology. Unlike Facebook and Google, which are thoroughly left-wing platforms, the co-founder of Telegram has routinely voiced his support for the app to remain a free speech platform. Perhaps even more importantly, unlike other Big Tech platforms, Telegram is far harder to censor and control, meaning political discourse on the platform is generally as free as it was on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook prior to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, if not freer.
So what do these conspiracy theories look like? Germans are, for example, organizing around opposition to the country’s planned vaccine mandate — the same vaccine mandate that Olaf Scholz, Angela Merkel, and essentially every leading politician promised would not come into effect in Germany. Many were called conspiracy theorists for even suggesting that a vaccine mandate would ever come to pass. As with the Wuhan lab leak theory, such conspiracy theories have often suddenly become legitimate areas of inquiry based on a change of narrative from the media class.
It is now only through political pressure, and partly through protests, that the German government is second-guessing its planned mandate. Many of those protests were organized through Telegram — making the app an even greater thorn in the side for the new government.
Germany’s liberal political and media class view Telegram as a hard-to-censor free speech platform, and ultimately a potential source of organizing power for Germans opposed to the dominant political and social order. As a result, it may be only a matter of time before this platform disappears, much like it did in China and other authoritarian countries.