Merkel Urges European Internet Push to Blunt U.S. Surveillance

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe should promote home-grown Internet companies to avoid U.S. surveillance as she sought to keep the spying affair out of her re-election campaign.

Merkel, at a 90-minute news conference in Berlin today before she goes on summer vacation, said she is pressing U.S. officials for information on the scale of the National Security Agency’s spying on global communications in Germany. That includes the Prism program, which mines data from technology companies.

“In view of this debate, we have to look at what we’re able to do in Europe,” Merkel said. Just as European companies build Airbus planes to compete with Boeing Co., “we have to ask ourselves which technical abilities we want to have in Europe in the Internet. Otherwise, we become dependent. A continent like Europe should have this ambition.”

Germany’s opposition, trailing in polls before the Sept. 22 federal election, is criticizing Merkel as slow to investigate the surveillance allegations by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden. While a poll for ARD television today said 69 percent of Germans aren’t satisfied with her government’s efforts to obtain information from President Barack Obama’s administration, 70 percent said her response has little or no effect on how they will vote as Merkel seeks a third term.

Merkel expressed understanding today for U.S. security needs after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, saying Obama’s statement that privacy must be weighed against security “is right.” Yet that doesn’t justify turning Germany into a “surveillance state,” she said.

‘Not My Job’

Queried repeatedly by reporters about the U.S. response to German concerns, Merkel said that she is waiting for answers and letting her cabinet ministers take the lead. “It’s not my job to get into the details of Prism,” she said. While she has a “100 percent interest” in disclosure, “to some degree this is out of my hands.”

German lawmakers across party lines are calling for Europe to build up rivals to companies such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. “Europe has to do something against the Americans’ market power,” Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who heads parliament’s Interior Affairs Committee, said yesterday in an interview. “I refuse to accept U.S. dominance of the industry,” opposition Social Democratic lawmaker Dieter Wiefelspuetz said.

Government aid probably won’t ease European fears, Dieter Kempf, the head of the Bitkom industry group in Germany, said in an e-mailed statement. It’s hard to imagine that “projects financed with taxpayer money can even remotely keep up with U.S. companies that have invested billions in technology development over the years,” he said.

Popularity Unaffected

For all the unease about U.S. surveillance, Merkel remains Germany’s most popular politician, increasing her approval rating in an FG Wahlen poll published July 12. Merkel is preferred by 62 percent of respondents, while 29 percent favor Peer Steinbrueck, her Social Democratic Party challenger.

With the Social Democrats lagging the Christian Democratic bloc by as many as 18 percentage points nine weeks before the election, Steinbrueck accused Merkel last week of breaking her chancellor’s oath to protect the German people.

Most Germans aren’t buying it, according to a separate Emnid poll for broadcaster N24 released yesterday. Opposition criticism of Merkel’s response to NSA spying was viewed as electioneering by 75 percent of respondents. Fifty-five percent weren’t concerned that U.S. agencies might be keeping tabs on their e-mail and phone calls. N24 gave no margin of error for the poll of about 1,000 people.

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