News / Europe

Germany Wants German Internet as Spying Scandal Rankles

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel adjusts her headset during a news conference at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels Oct. 25, 2013.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel adjusts her headset during a news conference at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels Oct. 25, 2013.
Reuters
As a diplomatic row rages between the United States and Europe over spying accusations, state-backed Deutsche Telekom wants German communications companies to cooperate to shield local Internet traffic from foreign intelligence services.
 
Yet the nascent effort, which took on new urgency after Germany said on Wednesday that it had evidence that Chancellor Angela Merkel's mobile phone had been monitored, faces an uphill battle if it is to be more than a marketing gimmick.
 
It would not work when Germans surf on websites hosted on servers abroad, such as social network Facebook or search engine Google, according to interviews with six telecom and Internet experts. Deutsche Telekom could also have trouble getting rival broadband groups on board because they are wary of sharing network information.
 
More fundamentally, the initiative runs counter to how the Internet works today - global traffic is passed from network to network under free or paid-for agreements with no thought for national borders.
 
If more countries wall themselves off, it could lead to a troubling “Balkanisation” of the Internet, crippling the openness and efficiency that have made the web a source of economic growth, said Dan Kaminsky, a U.S. security researcher.
 
Controls over Internet traffic are more commonly seen in countries such as China and Iran where governments seek to limit the content their people can access by erecting firewalls and blocking Facebook and Twitter.
 
“It is internationally without precedent that the Internet traffic of a developed country bypasses the servers of another country,” said Torsten Gerpott, a professor of business and telecoms at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
 
“The push of Deutsche Telekom is laudable, but it's also a public relations move.”
 
Deutsche Telekom, which is 32 percent owned by the government, has received backing for its project from the telecoms regulator for potentially giving customers more options.
 
In August, the company also launched a service dubbed “E-mail made in Germany” that encrypts email and sends traffic exclusively through its domestic servers.

Bugging
 
Government snooping is a sensitive subject in Germany, which has among the strictest privacy laws in the world, since it dredges up memories of eavesdropping by the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany, where Merkel grew up.
 
The issue dominated discussions at a European summit on Thursday, prompting Merkel to demand that the U.S. strike a “no-spying” agreement with Berlin and Paris by the end of the year.
 
As the row festers, telecom and Internet experts said the rhetoric exceeded the practical changes that could be expected from Deutsche Telekom's project. More than 90 percent of Germany's Internet traffic already stays within its borders, said Klaus Landefeld, a board member of the non-profit organization that runs the DE-CIX Internet exchange point in Frankfurt.
 
Others pointed out that Deutsche Telekom's preference for being paid by other Internet networks for carrying traffic to the end user, instead of “peering” agreements at no cost, clashed with the goal to keep traffic within Germany. It can be cheaper or free for German traffic to go through London or Amsterdam, where it can be intercepted by foreign spies.
 
Thomas Kremer, the executive in charge of data privacy and legal affairs for the German operator, said the group needed to sign connection agreements with three additional operators to make a national routing possible. “If this were not the case, one could think of a legislative solution,” he said.
 
“As long as sender and receiver are in the Schengen area or in Germany, traffic should no longer be routed through other countries,” Kremer said, referring to the 26-country passport-free zone in Europe.
 
A spokesman for Telefonica Germany said it was in early discussions on national routing with other groups. A spokesman for Vodafone said it was “evaluating if and how” to implement the Deutsche Telekom proposal.
 
Data centers

 
While the routers and switches that direct traffic can be programmed so data travel certain routes, the most popular online services are not built to respect borders.
 
Web companies often rely on a few large data centers to power their entire operation, and they don't choose locations based on the location of their customers but on factors such as the availability of cheap power, cool climates, and high-speed broadband networks.
 
For example, if a Munich resident uses Facebook to chat with a friend sitting 500 kilometers (310 miles) away in Berlin, the traffic would go through one of the company's three massive data centers 8,000 km away in Oregon or North Carolina, or one near the Arctic Circle in the Swedish town of LuleKa. European users' profiles are not necessarily stored in the Swedish center; instead the website's different functions such as games, messaging, and wall posts are distributed among the data centers to improve efficiency.
 
Similarly, emails sent by Google's Gmail between two German residents would probably be routed through one of the company's three data centers in Finland, Belgium and Ireland.
 
The only way to change this would be for Germany to require local hosting of websites, a drastic move according to experts that has not yet been pushed by German leaders. Deutsche Telekom declined to say whether it would lobby for such an approach.
 
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, angered by reports that the U.S. spied on her and other Brazilians, is pushing legislation that would force Google, Facebook and other internet companies to store locally gathered or user-generated data inside the country.
 
One solution would be for European leaders to beef up a new data-privacy law, which has been in the works for almost two years. A greatly toughened version of the law was backed by the European Parliament on Monday, but it still requires agreement by members states.
 
France and Germany may succeed in getting member states to push ahead on talks to complete the new data rules by 2015.
 
Deutsche Telekom's Kremer said the new law could help: “Of course customers need to be able to use any web services they like, anywhere in the world. But we need to make this safer.”

You May Like

Video On The Scene: In Ethiopia, 'Are You a Journalist?' Is a Loaded Question

VOA's Anita Powell describes the difficulties faced by reporters in fully conveying the story in a country where people are reticent to share their true opinions More

Nigerians Await New President With High Hopes

When pomp and circumstance of inauguration end in Abuja, Buhari will sit down to the hard task of governing Nigeria More

India's Restrictions on Several NGOs Raise Concerns

Political analysts link recent clampdown on advocacy groups to report last year that said foreign-funded NGO’s negatively impact economic development More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardshipi
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
May 28, 2015 6:48 PM
Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Expelled from Pakistan, Afghan Refugees Return to Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Floodwaters Recede in Houston, but Rain Continues

Many parts of Texas are recovering from one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southwestern state. Heavy rains on Monday and early Tuesday caused rivers to swell in eastern and central Texas, washing away homes and killing at least 13 people. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, floodwaters are receding slowly in the country's fourth-largest city, and there likely is to be more rain in the coming days.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.

VOA Blogs