German cabinet minister stokes Facebook hysteria

Ilse Aigner, the Minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, has issued a letter to all government ministries demanding that they cease any form of online connection with Facebook, including use of fan pages and the recently demonised “like button”. Continuing the debate over ‘privacy concerns’ and the social networking site, she issued a letter quoted in news magazine Der Spiegel as outlining “legal concerns” over government ministries’ use of any technology linked in to the platform.

Der Spiegel quotes the letter as saying: “Following an extensive legal probe I think it is essential that we should no longer use the Facebook button on all official government internet sites under our control.” The form that this “extensive legal probe” took is as yet unknown, although the letter claims that it threw up “justified legal doubts” about fan pages, which allow users to view information of an organisation via the social networking platform.

Aigner added that “logically enough”, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection has no fan page on the site or provides a link to it via the “like” button, which was recently banned by the state of Schleswig-Holstein over data storage concerns. Despite Facebook issuing a statement in reaction to the ban arguing that users “liking” the page results in their data being stored for the industry-standard 90 days, Aigner chose to ignore this and stoke the fires of paranoia.

She also seems to have ignored the idea of Facebook as a social networking platform for user-generated content. While fan pages may store data on a ministry, that data is submitted by the ministry themselves, as is the application to link through the “like” button. Therefore, not only is it another chance for that particular part of the institution to self-publicise (no Malcolm Tuckers needed), but it provides a platform for users of the service to communicate with the ministry.

Or it could do if used correctly — witness the general page for the German parliament, the Bundestag. The page contains some basic location information as well as a spirited review from a tourist stating that “its really a wounderfull [sic] place to be visited”. Probing it isn’t; frankly it’s underusing its social networking potential, using the site to flag up its existence and nothing more.

The demand that government departments and parliamentarians should “set a good example and show that they give a high priority to the protection of personal data” seems misplaced when here it is more concerned with institutional privacy. Data protection for individuals is a different concern to the openness of institutions, for whom the internet is undoubtedly the biggest facilitator when it comes to making internal information public and easily accessible. As exhibit B, take a look at the page for the US Department of Homeland Security. Even this department, to which openness is very much a foreign concept, has created a page where citizens are free to comment and spark discussions stemming from departmental press releases or documents. Simply put, the potential for web 2.0 applications such as Facebook to provide a previously unavailable forum for communication with government departments should be welcomed, not shied away from.

Even Der Spiegel linked Aigner’s letter to the “ongoing German concern that the social networking site threatens data privacy”, in a way which suggested that this particular form of hysteria is a legitimate complaint. Essentially, this taps into a vein of fear about social media and data collection in this country, stemming from a past where record keeping was the fuel of oppressive regimes. The horrors which were perpetrated through the surveillance society of the German Democratic Republic, where the Stasi (the Ministry of State Security) encouraged citizens to spy on their neighbours and all activities were tightly monitored and recorded are legendary, as immortalised in popular culture through the film “Das Leben der Anderen”  (“The Lives of Others”). Any form of public record keeping is therefore treated with extreme suspicion; the Austrian cabaret artist Michael Niavarani is famously quoted as stating in an interview that “Facebook ist Stasi auf freiwilliger Basis” (“Facebook is people freely signing up to Stasi surveillance”).

Aigner’s letter is designed to appeal to this sense of free-floating public unease and distrust around social media, stoking this fear in a way that is both contradictory and to the benefit of government. Firstly, the idea that institutions need to “set an example” to prevent people from voluntarily sharing information is a protectionist attitude to prevent the populace doing something it is thus believed they don’t fully understand. This attitude is not so far from that of the Stasi, who believed their surveillance was for the protection of the populace. Secondly, telling people that this is about “personal” data is a fallacy, it is an example of the government playing on fears in order to avoid exposing likely mostly harmless data, and providing a light-hearted social forum with which to allow citizens to discuss government activity. The only people that Aigner’s letter is out to protect is the German government itself, not the populace whose fears it seeks to draw on.

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