German activists fight planned census in court

Next May, Germany is to conduct its first census in 24 years. Preparations are already underway, but the public is still unaware of these efforts. 1983 a broad movement managed to gain important changes for better security, and the constitutional court established the basic right to informational self-determination. Now, activists again want to take the resistance against extensive data collection to Karlsruhe.

“All that is happening completely under the radar”, says Oliver “Unicorn” Knapp. He is concerned with the planned census in the Chaos Computer Club (CCC). Together with Tim “Scytale” Weber, Knapp has held a lecture (Slides, in German) at Cologne’s Sigint Conference on the 2011 census law to raise public awareness for the issue. Currently, there is close to none, he says.

In Germany, the word “census” (“Volkszählung” – literally “population count”) is very much connected with a wave of protests from 1983 to 1987. In 1983, plans for a census clashed with an already highly politicized public sphere. Within weeks, hundreds of citizens’ initiatives formed over concerns transcending data security, supported by prominent public figures such as nobel prize laureate Günter Grass. The planned census was stopped and finally prohibited by the federal constitutional court in a groundbreaking decision which established the basic right to informational self-determination.

When the census was finally carried out in updated form in 1987, protests surrounding it turned against decreasing civil liberties and urged for more democracy. Activists called for a boycott of the census and “alternative collecting points” presented more than one million blank forms. The government reacted with a rigorous clampdown against protesters, but some municipalities supported the boycott and had to be forced to conduct the census interviews.

One of the reasons that today we see none of these protests might be that next year’s is going to be a so-called “register-based census”. That means that on the one hand, data from different public institutions will be merged and matched against each other. A process that will not show on the street. Thus the population only perceives the other part of the census – the questioning of a sample of ten percent of all households.

In theory, Germany already has detailed information of all inhabitants in registration offices. But in fact these databases are actually often inaccurate and sometimes not even available in standardized form. For that reason, data from job offices and government agencies (for civil servants) are also collected for the census. By matching these databases, it is expected to expose faults of the registration offices.

Datasets from registration offices, job centers and government agencies will be collected by the respective state offices and then transfered to the national office for statistics – without anonymization. That is also true for individuals who are part of a witness protection program. The entries registration offices hold about them bear a notation prohibitting to forward them. But for the census, these data will still be transfered – including the reference regarding the witness protection program.

The reference date for collecting data is on Mai 9, 2011. From this day on, the census also starts in the way that is still known from 1987: Interviewers are deployed to question Germany’s inhabitants. Unlike 23 years ago, not all of the population is subject to interrogations, but only every tenth household. Giving (correct) answers is obligatory and not doing so can be penalized by a fine of up to 5.000 Euros. This phase will take a few months (Official info graphic, in German).

But obviously, some people are more equal than others. There is a range of so-called “special sectors”: Prisons, nursing homes, psychiatries, doss houses. Here, not only samples are taken, but each inhabitant of these facilities is going to be registered, the CCC acitivists say. The statistics offices mention additional interviews “in some cases”, because the data situation there was especially error-prone. The liability to disclose the requested information is with the establishments’ managements, the individuals concerned are only informed that data is transferred.

Already two weeks before the reference date, all the nation’s real estate owners will receive mail. They have to disclose information on their property, disclose whether a flat has a toilet, bathtub or shower. This questioning is conducted per mail, which is why it is expected to take longer: 14 months. Questioning of a population sample and real estate owners combined, about 30 percent of all inhabitants will have to provide information.

These data will be merged and linked up at the national office for statistics. „That in the process the most comprehensive population index in Germany’s history is created is thus no fault, but intended“, Knapp and Weber write in an article for CCC magazine, “Datenschleuder“.

Additionally, all information is linked up with a unique personal identification number. „For any address, any building, any flat, any household and any person national and state statistics offices assign and keep an identification number, which can be applied across municipalities and buildings. Identification numbers can be used in mergings according to §9“, says the census act.

Both activists see this as a clear breach of Germany’s constitution. They point to 1983’s famous “census verdict”, in which the federal constitutional court established a basic right to informational self-determination. At the core of this judgment, Knapp and Weber see the declaration that

a comprehensive registration and indexing of the personality through merging individual biographical and personal data in order to create profiles of the personality of the citizens […] is inadmissible even in the anonymity of statistical censi.

But other aspects of the law for 2011’s census as well seem to cross the lines defined by the constitutional judges in their decision. Back then, a lack of anonymization was one of the reasons to block the original plans. Subsequently in 1987, block-wise anonymization was adopted. But today, this security measure is no object anymore.

Another point of criticism in 1983 was that original plans included using census data to correct registration offices’ databases. The constitutional court put a stop to this as well, which seems to still be extant in the so-called “separation principle”: According to that, census data may only be used for statistical purposes. But without anonymization, it is hard to rule out misuse.

The German census act implements an EU directive, other European countries will question their population as well in 2011. But the federal republic exceeds the minimal requirements set by Brussels in two cases. The form will additionally ask whether interviewees or their parents have migrated to Germany, as well as for religious beliefs held by them (answering the latter is optional).

Ten years ago, Germany and Sweden were the only countries not to participate in the European census. 1991 as well a census planned after the fall of the Berlin wall was canceled, which would have updated statistical information on the reunited German nation. The costs were deemed to high back then, but fear of protests from the population was critical for the cancellation as well.

This time costs are again a major issue. 750 million Euros are budgeted for the census, a third of which will be paid by the federal government. Municipalities are thus far from happy about the project since they will have to pay high expenses for administration as well as execution of the census.

Since 1987 (in Eastern Germany 1981), Germany has not had a census, except for an annual microcensus in which about one percent of the population is surveyed. The national office for statistics still works on the base of this old data. But population registers must have considerably improved since 2007, when their data was used for the roll-out of a unique tax payer’s account number. Registration offices were notified about flawed data, which could thus be used to reassess the registers.

Proponents of the census do not tire to emphasize the need for accurate, up-to-date population statistics. In fact, some important decisions are made on the base of these data, including the allocation of large sums of money on a state, federal and EU level. CCC activists Knapp and Weber are therefore sure that it will not be possible to stop the census in its entirety.

Yet at CCC’s Cologne conference Sigint, they called for a constitutional complaint against the law. Still at the event, a working group was formed as a subgroup of anti-surveillance umbrella organization Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung (“working group on data retention”). Its goal is to take the census to Germany’s federal constitutional court in Karlsruhe, where the activists hope to achieve better anonymization of collected data.

On June 22, the constitutional complaint was put up online for public support. Up to now, nearly 7000 citizens have signed the petition on the site of civil rights group FoeBuD. The deadline for submitting the complaint is on July 15, when the one-year respite after the passing of the law expires. Until then, attorney Eva Dworschak will prepare the final text to be submitted to Karlsruhe.

What’s up after that? To stop the census in its current form, the federal constitutional court would have to bar it by interim measure. The activists are confident that even Germany’s highest judges are not ignorant to events on the street. A wave of protest as in 1983 would not leave them cold. Thus the issue up next is to form a movement that brings together veteran anti-census protesters and members of Germany’s “new civil rights movement” which has formed up during last years’ in the fight against data retention and internet filtering.

As a member of the Siegen chapter of Arbeitskreis Vorratsdatenspeicherung and FoeBuD, I will do my part in this. We are currently planning a street event to inform people on the upcoming census and collect supporters’ signatures for the constitutional complaint. If you are from Siegen, you are invited to join us in our preparational meeting on Thursday, July 1. More info here.

This article is an updated translation of a post I wrote for Spreeblick, “Aktivisten planen Verfassungsbeschwerde gegen Volkszählung 2011”.

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YouthExchange in Budapest: Kyrgyzstan, African Hip Hop, Citizen-Proposed Legislation

This weekend I was in Budapest for YouthExchange 2010, “the coolest thing in spring”, as my friend Marietta said. It was a gathering of about 100 (mostly George Soros-paid) people from all over the world working in youth engagement. Here’s a short roundup of what I’ve heard and seen:

Kyrgyzstan: Revolution, social media, activism through contemporary art

The event was attended by a small group from revolution-shaken Kyrgyzstan. Tolkun Umaraliev highlighted Central Asia-centered group blog NewEurasia and social media news site and blogging platform has valuable sources during the coup d’état. Eventhough only 14% of the population have access to the Internet, Tolkun sees citizen journalism in an important position.

He also told the story of Timur Toktonaliev, a 16 years old blogger who is the youngest journalist ever accredited to the Kyrgyz parliament. Working after school, he reports from the ongoings at the parliament. Readers of his blog can also pose questions to their deputees, which Timur will then try to get answered in interviews with the politicians.

Nellya Dzhamanbaeva of ArtEast told me about how they use contemporary art to raise awareness for social issues. While censors – mostly older people – did not understand contemporary art, the young audience they aim at would get the message, she told me.

As for the current situation in Kyrgyzstan, both Tolkun and Nellya seemed unsure what to expect. Visibly shocked by the second bloody revolution within five years, Nellya told that she doesn’t see a coup d’état as the right way for the country. Tolkun, while praising interim president Rosa Otunbajewa as a “very intelligent person”, said he wasn’t sure what to expect for the future, as the promises of the new leadership could turn out to be populism again, as were those of the revolutionaries of 2005’s “tulip revolution”.

Citizen-proposed legislation in Thailand

Niw Wong spoke about her work at, a Thai website that aims to promote citizen-proposed legislation. Since 2007, Thailand’s constitutions requires only 10.000 signatures to bring citizen-proposed legislation into parliament (first introduced through the constitution of 1997, 50.000 signatures were required before). collects ideas by citizens and helps them in drafting valid proposals.

Citizen-proposed legislation is, in my eyes, a great concept. Yet no draft has made it into the parliament since the opportunity was introduced more than ten years ago. Niw points out the complex process required for supporting a proposal as a key problem, which includes providing an ID card at a local . A more simple process, probably similar to Germany’s ePetition system, could make it easier for people to support drafts, thus making citizen-proposed legislation an effective tool for participatory politics.

Preparing for violent elections in Uganda

Next year, Uganda, a country that has not seen a single peaceful change of government in 48 years, will have only the second multi-party elections in its history. Gerald Karuhanga of the Justice and Development Council fears that the country will experience the same post-election violence that in 2009 left thousands of Kenyans dead.

An initiative called “PRESERVE” aims to reduce and document violent events before, during and after the elections through regional workshops, information dissemination, debates, public dialogues and “research based advocacy”, mostly trying to reach out to youth leagues, but also police and women’s organisations.

As tools for information dissemination, Gerald named mostly broadcasting tools such as TV, radio and newspapers. Asked about the use of mobile phones, he presented two ways of using mobile phones for information dissemination, namely through sending out SMS and voice mails. The latter is especially interesting because through voice messages, the huge illiterate part of the population (32%) could possibly be reached as well.

Still I think that mobile phones could also be used as a back channel, i.e. for information gathering. E.g. Ushahidi was developed as a crisis mapping tool during Kenya’s after-election riots, and in Ghana activists have used mobile phones to monitor elections and document possible evidence of vote rigging, one of the stated goals of PRESERVE.

Hip hop spreads political messages in Africa

Parker Mah held an enlightening talk about political hip hop in Africa. “Hip hop is booming in Africa”, he said, asking “why hip hop and why Africa?”. I can only recommend you to check out his presentation on Prezi. The slides are mostly self-descriptive and contain most of the content of Parker’s talk, including some great examples of African conscious rap.

As a personal educated guess, I have made up my own answer to Parker’s question. In the West, for several hundred years we have been used to see political criticism presented in written form (i.e. newspapers). Africa, on the other hand, has a longstanding history of oral information dissemination (e.g. Mali’s griot tradition). So hip hop, in my eyes, can be seen as continuing this tradition.

Hungarian elections

Visiting Hungary on election day (April 11), I got a devastating image of a democracy where young people see no (liberal) politicians they can trust in as an antisemitic, antiziganic, neofascist party – Jobbik – gets nearly as much votes as the currently governing social democrats. My German readers may be interested in my article for Spreeblick where I describe my impressions.

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Austrian students are taking social media-trained organization to the ground

In Vienna, students have seized control of the university’s lecture hall to protest neoliberal reforms of the education system. What makes this student revolt so remarkable is that its participants use techniques they have learned on the web.

The protests erupted rather spontaneously after professors and students at the much smaller Academy of Fine Arts ended a press conference with the statement that from then on the auditorium was seized. Soon, students at the University of Vienna followed suit. Nicole Kernherr, who served as the protesters’ spokeswoman on the first eve, reports:

“We got news about something going on there via mobile phone through personal contacts. Those who are committed to such things know each other quite well here.”

But there were no groups involved in organizing the protest. In fact, the Austrian students’ council, which had been behind protest events in the past, still remains relatively silent about the coup. Instead, the protest is organized to be strictly non-hierarchical, Philipp Sonderegger writes:

“The protest is not organized hierarchically, but network-like flat, decentralized and with many nodes. Spokespeople are newly elected every day to prevent individuals from becoming to important. […] The six members of the organizing team are elected newly every day as well. Allegedly, decisions are prepared in 44 working groups, but have to be rubber-stamped by the plenum to prevent informal structures from taking hold.”

This is also empowered by a live video stream set up to let people follow the plenum online.

Officials of the university have complained about not having a distinct person to address. They were countered by an invitation to speak in front of the plenum. This is just the way the protesters communicate themselves: To the masses. Early-on they have used twitter not only to mobilize, but also to organize and coordinate.

If there is a lack of, let’s say, rice at the canteen, it’s just twittered. Many of the tweets by Unibrennt or those tagged #unibrennt (German for “university is burning”) are similar requests. And the network proves its ability to allocate resources effectively.

But as Jana Herwig remarks in an article entitled “from flash mob to #unibrennt: collective organization in real-time“, the outside world has difficulties to deal with this protest culture.

Herwig makes the point that there is actually a misunderstanding at work of what is political. She picks up criticism that the protesters were just “partysans”, that they were in fact non-political and did not have serious interest in their cause. A criticism that was partly fueled by said live video stream, showing people partying after discussion were over.

Herwig counters that in fact, protesters could never be dead serious 24/7. Previous generations of protesters did party just as this one does – but they were living in different media circumstances. When media was limited – only a few could produce media, and even those still had limited space to broadcast it – protesters could present themselves in placative events, narrowing the image the public would get of them.

“But today, protest is turned inside-out: mobile phone photos, Twitter news, Facebook groups, mobile coverage and of course the live stream from the lecture hall – all this provides opportunities to monitor the squatters at every turn,”

Herwig writes.

And she defends the protesters against accusations of having no program. In fact, she embraces the program being created collectively now that the sit-in has begun:

“This protest is different because one has not come up with elaborate pamphlets, but the program, starting from first demands yet, is evolving.”

Herwig bases her argument on the primary point of discussion at the plenum on Friday noon:

“Basis for the discussion: What was started with the sit-in? How shall it proceed? What do we want to achieve?

Officials struggle to counter this movement, yet it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first squatters at the academy of arts started their protest demanding “re-democratization instead of neoliberal politics of leadership”. Now the protest’s level of democratization is disarming the old leadership.

There is just no way to decapitate a network, writes Sonderegger. Only if informal structures should finally take hold, providing the authorities with a handle to take on the now-liquid, young movement, it could face rapid marginalization. Meanwhile, the protest has spread to other universities, e.g. in Graz and Turin.

The Bologna process and other neoliberal reforms of the education system are affecting schools and universities in all of the European Union. It will be interesting to see whether these protests can gain further ground in their aim to promote “education, not formation” and a re-democratization of Europe’s universities.

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