Half serious Günther Oettinger.

Half serious Günther Oettinger.

So, the European Parliament has begun its hearings in order to evaluate the Commissioners designated by the European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker. But the hearings have shown quite a few surprises…

After Cecilia Malmström, it was up to Günther Oettinger, appointed to be the commissioner responsible for ‘digital economy and society’, to be in the spotlight last Monday. This time, however, it was not due to some compromising correspondence, but to some highly questionable answers.

The MEPs’ questions focused on issues such as roaming and net neutrality, data protection, mass surveillance, the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling, and copyright law. On the overall, Oettinger was vague and superficial and mainly dodged the questions, namely regarding net neutrality. However, infrastructure (whatever this is supposed to mean) appeared to be one of its main priorities, as it came up in almost every statement.

But what  this hearing will always be remembered for is by how he referred to the recent data breach involving several  female celebrities, which I have previously addressed here.

According to Oettinger, it would not be his role as a commissioner to protect celebrities who have taken under-dressed pictures of themselves, and his precise words were as follows:

We should say: We can mitigate or even eliminate some risks. But like with any technology, you can’t exclude all risks. I’ll give an example. This may be a little, um… semi-serious. The fact that recently there have been an increasing number of public lamentations about nude photos of celebrities who took selfies – I just can’t believe it! If someone is dumb enough to as a celebrity take a nude photo of themselves and put it online, they surely can’t expect us to protect them. I mean, stupidity is something you can not – or only partly – save people from.

In conclusion, Oettinger obviously  considered (half-seriously?? is this remotely funny in any sense?) that the private photos that female celebrities took of themselves would be a good example for whichever point he wanted to make concerning the limitations of technological security.

Of course it didn’t help at all that he might seem oblivious to the outlines of the case, as to the fact that the pictures have not been put online by the victims themselves, but were, instead,stored in private cloud accounts belonging to the celebrities, accessed by third-parties following a hacking attack and then published against their authorisation. Quite a relevant little detail… And quite astonishing that  the upcoming head of EU digital policy would fail to distinguish privately accessed cloud services and the open Internet.

No wonder that Green MEP Jan Philipp Albrecht considered that, by putting Oettinger in charge of the digital economy, Juncker has committed a fatal mistake:

Oettinger does not even use social media, for example. He barely communicates publicly with people on the internet. Instead, he is a man of classical media. As regional prime minister and as energy commissioner he devoted himself to traditional issue areas. This will be an enormous challenge for him.

Currently, many – myself included – wonder if he is a suitable candidate for the intended position. The fact that data protection will very likely become the direct responsibility of designated justice, consumers and gender equality commissioner Vera Jourová is therefore a relief.

Anyway, in a dubious harmony with the opinion of a vast amount of internet users, the designated commissioner believes that the victims – all women, let’s not forget – are the major culprits for their own privacy’s violation. As any other good moralist would easily point out, being celebrities they should have known better than to take pictures intended to remain private or only to be shared with whoever they wanted. How dared they?

Unfortunately, Oettinger completely failed to consider the big picture of the incident: online security in general. He therefore missed the ugly truth that is: anybody can be a target of hacking attacks for the most diversified purposes, with more or less serious and far-reaching consequences. If, instead of private pictures, the ‘celebgate’ would have referred to intellectual property or credit cards information theft, would it have been so light-heartedly approached? One should not be so naïve as to think that this is only about pictures or videos. More sensitive data is at stake.

As understandable as it can be that, being Oettinger the previous commissioner for energy, he might feel more comfortable among gas and oil pipes,  his comments raised a strong and welcomed criticism within the public opinion. One particular MEP, Julia Reda, who represents the Pirate Party, elaborated better than I could have on all the issues brought up by these foolish comments.

But besides being strange, at the very least, that a likely to be commissioner (after all, the European Commission is the guardian of the treaties) would, in front of the MEPs (being the European Parliament the only European institution which directly represents the voice of the 500 million EU citizens), focus on the fact that the pictures were taken in the first place, it is not only disappointing but also mainly worrying.

It is indeed deeply dramatic that nowadays, in the European Union, and at this high level, one can still so blatantly find the very same reflections of the sexism and victim blaming that have been manifested online when the news of the hacking came out. It is all very wrong when a commissioner not only agrees with those moralists but feels at ease to joke about it publicly. Where are we heading to? How ironic would it be that, among all the challenges brought by the technological progress, we would somehow recede to the early stages of discussions concerning  equal rights and gender discrimination but this time – because Oettinger is a man of his time and the access to the right to vote is so last century! -within the upcoming era of Internet of Things.

Furthermore, it is quite distressful that, in regards to the data security breaches news that make, almost everyday, the headlines of worldwide newspapers, the really important point to be made – the raising of awareness regarding the risks associated to technology and the need for a more secure data storage systems, namely cloud-based  – was just overshadowed by such misogynist  remarks…

Considering all this,  Oettinger’s own words are fairly applicable:

Stupidity is something you can not – or only partly – save people from.