Story highlights

Berlin has appeared on the Western media's radar as an emerging hub for freedom of information (FOI) activists.

"There is just a very real historical awareness of how information can be used against people in really dangerous ways here," filmmaker Laura Poitras told The Guardian, adding that this was one of the reasons why she moved to Berlin. Etched in the memory of this city are the massive surveillance apparatuses that helped carry out the atrocious crimes of the Nazis and the division of Germany to East and West.

Germany's digital rights movement has been heavily influenced by this historical memory and politicised landscape. The most influential organisation in this area, the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), was founded in 1981 in the rooms of leftist Berlin newspaper

Berlin has appeared on the Western media's radar as an emerging hub for freedom of information (FOI) activists.

"There is just a very real historical awareness of how information can be used against people in really dangerous ways here," filmmaker Laura Poitras told The Guardian, adding that this was one of the reasons why she moved to Berlin. Etched in the memory of this city are the massive surveillance apparatuses that helped carry out the atrocious crimes of the Nazis and the division of Germany to East and West.

Germany's digital rights movement has been heavily influenced by this historical memory and politicised landscape. The most influential organisation in this area, the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), was founded in 1981 in the rooms of leftist Berlin newspaper taz, and has become one of the most prominent critics of state surveillance. In 2010 it was successful in discovering Trojan horse malware used by German police to access personal information of private individuals, revealing the extensive scope of that programme and thus hindering it. And after secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden became public, revealing far-reaching mass surveillance techniques, the CCC filed lawsuits against the German government and its spy agencies for their failure to prevent foreign surveillance in Germany and their possible complicity with it.

The CCC has spawned and influenced other organisations and projects, creating an environment that made Berlin a hub of the struggle for government transparency and digital freedom. The German Pirate Party was founded here, on the banks of the Spree River that cuts through the capital. The elections of 2011 were the biggest success of the young party, which managed to enter Berlin's state parliament for the first time.

An alliance of civil rights organisations set up the yearly "Freedom-not-Fear" mass protests against state surveillance, with tens of thousands of participants attending in 2008 and 2009. The city attracted important figures of the FOI movement like Jacob Appelbaum and Sarah Harrison, who are both closely associated with Wikileaks.

So Berlin has come to be seen as a safe haven for activists. But can it really live up to the reputation it has won in the media?

'Fall from grace'

Despite its optimistic launch, the Pirate Party quickly fell from grace slipping into obscurity after being seen as a serious political force just two years ago. The numbers of participants in FOI protest marches has steadily declined, with members of the civil rights alliance calling for an end of the ritualised event.

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But perhaps one of the biggest setbacks for FOI activism in Berlin was that Edward Snowden wasn't given a chance to come to Germany to give testimony, with the government openly opposing any plans in this regard.

After the Snowden revelations, even summoning an inquiry in parliament was a challenge, as the majority of political forces were opposed. When the German parliament finally managed to vote for the installation of the inquiry committee, the European Parliament had already run its inquiry and adopted the final report on the matter.

Once the committee to lead the investigation was set up, a series of mishaps and embarrassments followed. Journalist Glenn Greenwald declined to participate, saying that the refusal of the coalition parties to comply with the opposition's demands for a hearing of Edward Snowden showed that the committee was a mere "illusion of an investigation". The chair of the committee, a member of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, had even resigned over this question, tired of the opposition's demands for a hearing of Snowden. The public hearings were "public" in name only; it was decided that there wouldn't be a live stream or videotaping, and that giving access to private individuals to the sessions was "public" enough.

And while public anger focused on the US intelligence agencies, few were asking what the role of the German secret services (known as the BND) was in the whole fiasco. An embarrassing incident in July revealed that side of the story. A German citizen was arrested for allegedly spying on the inquiry committee for the US; it was reported that the man was actually working for the BND. Interestingly enough, a former NSA employee who gave testimony before the committee described the BND as an "appendage" of the NSA.

In the following hearings, BND employees had to sit on the hot chair and answer the questions of the committee. Not much came out of these sessions as most of the time the documents discussed were censored and BND staff was not allowed to answer a lot of the questions they were asked.

Small victories

Activist blog netzpolitik.org, which had been monitoring the inquiry committee closely, had started asking for documents mentioned in the committee through freedom of information (FOI) act requests. The Open Knowledge Foundation Germany had set up a helpful website (fragdenstaat.de) to facilitate such requests, following the example of the British whatdotheyknow.com.

Even though FOI requests were denied most of the time, they put agencies under increasing scrutiny for their refusal to increase transparency. The activists, who have close ties to the CCC, documented closely every refusal to their FOI requests. The increasing public pressure and scrutiny led to government employees leaking some of the documents.

Listening Post - Journalism in the age of surveillance

This is how the public learned about the BND's worries over a potential inquiry committee in October 2013 scrutinising its signals intelligence department. Another leaked document revealed instructions for witnesses in the hearings on what they can and cannot say.

While small victories like these leaks are encouraging, the digital rights movement has a lot of work to do. A lot has to be done on a European level. Five German organisations, including the CCC, joined the umbrella association European Digital Rights (EDRi) to work on topics such as data retention, privacy laws and IT security. In Germany, effort is put into educating the public about encryption and other digital safety strategies, as well as campaigning against the secret services. The latter, however, are still more influential when lobbying the government for permissions to expand their surveillance; their trump card has always been "the fight against terror".

But the activists remain hopeful: "I have witnessed before how even a very powerful secret service can collapse," CCC spokesperson Constanze Kurz, born in East Berlin, told public broadcaster SWR. The struggle for freedom of information and digital rights continues, powered by the memories of past mistakes that should not be repeated. 

Kilian Froitzhuber is a journalist and speechwriter based in Berlin. He has worked in the fields of digital civil rights for a Member of the European Parliament as well as for civil rights organisations. He earned a Masters degree in political science from the Free University of Berlin.

Source: Al Jazeera