This week, for the first time in a long time, a chink appeared in Angela Merkel’s tangerine trouser suit of armour. During the press conference for President Obama’s state visit to Berlin, (where the city was once again content to wheel out the Brandenburg Gate as a stage set for America’s “We-Won-The-Cold-War!-Remember-That?-We-Totally-Won-That-Fucker.-Like,-Totally!-It-Wasn’t-Even-Close” show), the German chancellor dropped one of her very few hashtagable off-the-cuff remarks: “Das Internet ist für uns alle Neuland.” – “The internet is virgin territory for all of us.”
Twitter instantly gave birth to a litter of BIG FAT HAIRY KITTENS. Memes spewed forth from meme-land as if the children of thousands of meme-makers (memists?) had been kidnapped and they had to pay the ransom in memes. “Look, Angie!” they gibbered. “This is the internet! We’ve been doing shit jokes on it for donkeys! Put your glasses on, you big old granny!”
Exploiting the chancellor’s foolishness, the Pirate Party, and one car-rental firm, were canny enough to capitalize immediately on this excellent campaign slogan that had fallen into their laps. But the backlash wasn’t long in coming, reinforced as it was by the fact that, erm, Merkel was right. People, most people, know fuck all about the internet. By Thursday, plenty of newspaper columnists had dug up the statistics on how few Germans actually have direct daily access to the internet, and how even fewer use it for anything other than sending emails. Then there was the political sense in which she was right, as in: the power of the internet really is an unknown, and more importantly, an uncontrollable factor – especially for governments, which is why Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently condemned “the menace of Twitter” and had the Turkish police arrest people using their Twitter accounts to organize demos.
In the light of these possible comparisons, Merkel was probably quite relieved that all that came of her press conference was a hailstorm of “isn’t-she-rubbish” jokes, for if anyone had paid any attention to what she said immediately after the “Neuland” remark, she might have looked a lot more foolish, and not a little cowardly. The internet, she said, “has given enemies and opponents of our democratic order completely new possibilities and approaches to endangering our way of life.”
In other words, this “virgin territory” is also a place that must be kept under thorough surveillance. That is clearly the conclusion that every government has now come to: from Iran, to the US, to Germany, to Turkey. Last week, you might remember, Merkel promised to “press” Obama on PRISM and how the US government has been secretly spying on people around the world. The Daily Mail said it would be a “grilling.” This, then, is what that grilling amounted to – crawling wretchedly up the president’s arse. Not that she minded much. In fact, her government allows German companies to sell internet surveillance software (basically state-made computer viruses to load onto computers remotely) to much less democratic regimes in Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere, who use it to catch their opponents. PRISM is not just in use, it’s on sale.
We’re often told that data security and online privacy are issues that German voters are unusually sensitive about – you’d think that Wednesday’s state visit might have presented an opportunity to call Merkel on her craven capitulation to the US and its PRISM programme, especially by the Pirates. But now the hyenas of the Twittersphere have allayed people’s fears. Why worry when the silly woman in charge just squints nervously through her reading glasses at her new-fangled computer?