By Guest author

The annual gala for the German Big Brother Awards (BBA), organised by EDRi member Digitalcourage, was held on 22 April 2016 in Bielefeld, Germany.

English-language coverage of the event was stepped up this year. While English translations of most of the laudations have been available on the website in previous years, this year Digitalcourage’s interpreter also read out the translated speeches and live-interpreted the rest of the event. This service was made available to the audience via radio headphones and broadcast as an audio stream. A video using the English audio track has also been published.

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The gala was opened with a guest speech by the former German Federal Minister for Justice, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. She famously resigned during her first term in office in 1996 to oppose the conservative–liberal coalition’s decision to introduce eavesdropping on private homes. This decision, the only “conscientious resignation“ of a German government minister to date, was later vindicated by the Constitutional Court when it declared the disputed law partly illegal in 2004. In her second term as Justice Minister in the conservative–liberal coalition of 2009–2013, she had a key role in preventing the re-introduction of telecommunications data retention under that government (the subsequent conservative–social-democratic coalition revived the measure in 2014/2015).

The Lifetime award went to Germany’s interior secret service, whose name literally translates as “Protection of the Constitution”, for 65 years of violating civil and privacy rights. The “Protection of the Constitution” was criticised in particular for monitoring and stigmatising groups and individuals that are critical of the state and society, for its uncontrollable system of informers, and for covering up allegedly illegal practices. Despite its history of scandals, the “Protection of the Constitution” is not being reigned in, but instead upgraded and entrusted with further tasks and intelligence capabilities. One of these new plans is to take up active investigation of social networks. This plan was famously leaked last summer by the blog netzpolitik.org, which led to its founder and one other journalist briefly facing a criminal investigation for treason, until this was halted and the Federal Prosecutor General was made to resign. The Lifetime award category was also chosen as the winner of the Audience Award by the guests present at the gala, with an unusually strong majority.

In the Consumer Protection category the Generali insurance was awarded, because it promises advantages to the insured if they use an app to transfer their fitness data and shopping behaviour to the insurance company, which in turn transfers the data to a credit-point system in South Africa. Participation in this scheme will not give the customers lower insurance premiums – instead they are incited to redirect their purchases of certain supposedly healthy products to a few branded shops. The laudation called this a “gamified” training for what would appear to be a healthy life-style; it also identified and strongly criticised the underlying trend of abandoning the solidarity-based model of insurance.

The award in the Economy category went to the US company and campaign platform Change.org for its business model of marketing personally identifiable information of signatories together with their political statements. As the laudation pointed out, Change.org appears to be a progressive, social project, but it really is a for-profit US corporation that shows many deficiencies with respect to data protection law. For example, it continues to store user data in the US using a reference in its privacy policy to the “Safe Harbor“ framework, which was ruled to be invalid by the European Court of Justice in October 2015.

A somewhat controversial moment came when the German head of Change.org appeared at the gala, only the fourth awardee in the German BBA’s 16-year history willing to do so. He tried to circumvent the previously agreed procedure, which was that he would first receive the award and only then be invited to respond in an interview with the gala’s moderator. After a few minutes of on-stage negotiation the award was handed to Change.org’s German press spokeswoman and time for a response was given as planned. German head of Change.org Gregor Hackmack used the opportunity to point to recent successful petitions and to details of the site’s system that lets petition signatories receive newsletters, but did not address core issues such as the marketing of sensitive data or the fact that the site’s terms cite the invalid Safe Harbor framework – which it still does even at the time of writing this article, more than three weeks after the BBA gala.

Next, Berlin’s Public Transport Company (BVG) was recognised in the Technology Category for the “VBB Fahrcard”, a contactless chipcard also known as “(((eTicket”. This card replaces previous season tickets, but involves registration of individual journeys which is both unnecessary for season tickets and a function whose existence was long concealed and allegedly lied about by the transport company. .

IBM Germany was awarded in the “Workplace” Category for the software “Social Dashboard”. This is an example of an internal social network for work-related communication. It models employees’ relationships and calculates a “reputation” score, which was portrayed as an attempt to control and evaluate employees’ social behaviour that will create wrong incentives and increase pressure at work.

The gala also featured a ”Newspeak” section, which this year highlighted the German neologism “Datenreichtum” (data wealth) – a term recently used by a German government minister and others in an attempt to paint the trend of Big Data in more positive colours.

Reprimands went to Germany’s reform of its prostitution law (which will introduce compulsory registration and curtail the fundamental right of inviolability of the home on the mere suspicion that prostitution might be taking place), to the Google Impact Challenge (an attempt by Google to woo NGOs into handling their communication and administration using Google’s tools, and thus a scheme to tap into civil society as a new data source), and to cashless festivals (the trend where festival goers are compelled to wearing RFID wristbands and charge these with cash before being able to buy provisions on the site).

As the sole “positive” subject of the gala, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Jan Philipp Albrecht and his team, including policy advisor Ralf Bendrath, were recognised in an honourable mention. Their work for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was praised as “seminal”, and the GDPR itself was hailed as a good start and a real chance for data protection in Europe. It was also pointed out that NGO work would have to continue to keep a close eye on how the regulation will be implemented and where it could be improved in the future.

Big Brother Awards Germany 2016
https://www.bigbrotherawards.de/en/2016

Recorded video of the gala
https://vimeo.com/163909275 (original audio)
https://vimeo.com/164733597 (English translation/interpretation)

Media coverage, reactions to the Change.org appearance (only in German)
https://digitalcourage.de/blog/2016/bigbrotherawards-2016-in-den-medien
https://digitalcourage.de/blog/changeorg-antwortet-auf-bigbrotheraward (transcript of the response given by Change.org on stage)
https://digitalcourage.de/blog/2016/es-wird-ihnen-nicht-gefallen-sie-bekommen-einen-bigbrotheraward (explanation on how Digitalcourage communicates with awardees ahead of the gala)
https://digitalcourage.de/blog/2016/besser-geht-immer (comment on the stand-off)

(Contribution by Sebastian Lisken, EDRi member Digitalcourage, Germany)

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