May 30, 2008 | By Danny O'Brien

Freedom Not Fear: Europe's Growing Protest Against Net Surveillance

This weekend, marches and meetings across Germany will protest the overreaction of countries to the threat of terrorism, and the re-emergence of a surveillance state in that country. "Freedom Not Fear" is not a small event: over 20,000 people demonstrated in the last protest in September, and over thirty cities will be taking part in this weekend's demonstrations. The organizers hope to expand across Europe for an even larger protest on September 20th of this year [Update: the date has been changed to October 11th].

What has prompted such a fierce reaction? The core of the protest is anger at the European Union's passing of the Directive on Mandatory Retention of Communications Traffic Data, an EU regulation that mandates all European ISPs and phone providers to keep records on every landline, cell and Internet phone call, every email sent, and every Internet connection session, for as long as two years.

The data retention directive was passed in March 2006, with a requirement that EU countries put its requirements into national law by September 2007. Many countries have been dragging their feet, however, faced with the daunting task of weakening existing privacy law, as well as negotiating with communication companies to install and maintain the extensive storage and monitoring equipment required.

But the infrastructure to support the collection of gigabytes of data on innocent citizens is being put in place - and already it has expanded beyond even permissions granted by the new Europe-wide regulations. Denmark's implementation of the directive, one of the first, require ISPs to record the protocol and port number of every TCP/IP session (if "unfeasible", they can opt to only record every 500th packet). On the 19th May, the UK proposed a plan to nationalize data retention entirely: collecting all the data from all ISPs and phone companies and storing it in a central government database for ease of access.

As citizens across the continent realize the extent to which they will be monitored, resistance is growing. Digital Rights Ireland's long-running constitutional challenge to data retention will be heard in the High Court on Thursday, June 5th. The German group leading the protests this weekend, the Working Group on Data Retention, has its own constitutional complaint pending.

Data retention is also rearing its head in the United States, too, with FBI Director Robert Mueller telling Congress last month that compelling ISPs to log Americans' activity for two years would be "tremendously helpful". This weekend's Freedom Not Fear protests are solely in Germany, but the planned September demonstrations will take place across Europe. Perhaps it is time that concerned United States citizens joined the chorus, before data retention has a chance to reach its shores.


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