Discussing the web and democracy at the European Forum

From the responsibility of citizens, to the relationship between whistleblowers and secrecy, to surveillance in public toilets: all aspects of internet and democracy were debated at one of the world’s top discussion comferences, The European Forum in Alpbach, Austria.

The panel was as eclectic as the themes. On the one side was Daniel Domscheit-Berg, erstwhile comrade of Julian Assange and Wikileaks.

Sitting next to him was Dr August Hanning, until recently the head of the BND, Germany’s intelligence service. Pieter Cleppe from Open Europe gave the audience a useful update on the European Union’s latest surveillance directives.

The expected fireworks did not materialise. The panel found itself, curiously, or perhaps politely, agreeing on a number of issues. I outlined to the audience of around four hundred people the campaign, led by Index and partners, in reforming English libel.

Hanning agreed with my contention that, in the light of the Wikileaks saga, Western governments needed to embark on a tighter interpretation of document secrecy. He and Domscheit-Berg found themselves in sync when warning of the dangers of private companies’ use of individuals’ data.

Domscheit-Berg argued that the internet’s greatest contribution was in bringing disparate communities together, particularly between the developed and developing world. He said the potential for an increase in information and awareness, and in democratic accountability was enormous and that citizens had barely begun to see the benefits. His Openleaks project, which aims to provide a platform for up to 100 media and non-governmental organisations to receive information from whistleblowers, is expected to go live by the end of 2011.

On the vexed issue of snooping in public toilets, which Hanning advocated while running the BND, the former spy chief said that his intention was not to invade privacy but to ensure that, for terrorists, there were no no-go areas in Germany.

The European Forum has been taking place every August in the picturesque Tyrolean village of Alpbach since shortly after the end of the Second World War.