A highly-respected German website is to be investigated for treason after publishing leaked documents relating to mass Internet surveillance.
The German Internet policy website, Netzpolitik.org, has been put on notice for treason after it published two articles revealing government plans to expand intelligence capabilities for Internet surveillance. The website received the notice yesterday from the German attorney general, following a complaint from the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz – this is the internal intelligence service, the German equivalent of MI5. The matter has sparked a media storm over freedom of the press, in a country where Internet surveillance issues are household knowledge.
The stories published by Netzpolitik were based on government documents, leaked by a person or persons unknown. They alleged that the German intelligence service was planning a programme of mass surveillance using Internet data, that would be illegal under German law.
The notice was sent to Markus Beckedahl, journalist and founder of Netzpolitik.org, and his colleague Andre Meister, as well as an unknown third person. It took the form of a letter on headed paper from the Attorney General’s office, informing them of the launch of a preliminary inquiry on the grounds of suspicion of treason. It stated that the inquiry had been sparked by the publication of two articles on the Netzpolitik blog.
It seems that this notice is not a definitive allegation, but signals the possibility of the journalists being charged with treason, depending on the outcome of the enquiry.
The German media has widely called this an attack on freedom of the press, on account of a story that makes uncomfortable reading for the goverment. Netzpolitik is a widely-respected website covering Internet policy issues in Germany and internationally.
The charge of treason seems an overly heavy reaction, and suggests that the government is nervous of media that seek transparency on the issue of mass surveillance. The German media have demanded that the authorities cease their actions. Netzpolitik.org has said that it refuses to be intimidated, and accused the authorities of deliberately targeting whistleblowers.
From what can be ascertained, this is a running story from 2014, when mainstream media reported the possibility of a new Internet surveillance unit being set up by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (full translation is Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution). These reports apparently appeared in Norddeutsche Rundfunk, WestDeutsche Rundfunk, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and Neue Deutschland.
Netzpolitik.org published an article on 25 February 2015 claiming to have the details of a budget for the new Internet spying unit.
This was followed up on 15 April 2015 with a further article claiming to know the details of the staffing of this unit. It alleged that the unit could seek to collect and analyse details of people’s Internet usage, including instant messaging and social media. Further allegations concerned interception of email traffic.
In between the publication of these two articles, a question was asked in the German Parliament by the Green MP Hans-Christian Stroeble.
It seems as though the German media were warned that reporting on mass surveillance plans could bring about a punishment as long ago as last autumn
The media were also warning that Netzpolitik could come under threat in early July.
Surveillance is a sensitive matter in Germany due to historical factors. Spying was commonplace in the Third Reich under the Nazi regime, where even failing to put out the flag on the Führer’s birthday could result in punishment. In the former East Germany, the Stasi secret police notoriously gathered files on many ordinary people. As a consequence, the Snowden revelations of 2013 caused considerable uproar and the implications of mass surveillance are not just a matter for an intellectual elite, as in the UK, but are discussed in ordinary households.
This could explain why the Justice Minister is now trying to distance himself from the Netzpolitik scandal, and suggesting that the government’s first step will be to assess whether the leaks did have the affect of compromising national security, and therefore could be considered treason. It seems that there would have to be a motive of intent, for treason to apply.
Internationally, the matter raises once again the issue of reporting on government surveillance matters, and the importance of public debate about the role of the Internet in intelligence gathering and analysis.
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