Merkel calls Internet ‘uncharted territory,’ earns Web’s endless mockery


President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel wave to spectators before Obama's speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. (AP Photo/Michael Kappeler)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered some viral ribbing on social media after making some remarks about U.S. cyber spying that sounded, to some observers, like they came straight from 1995.

Merkel and President Obama were giving a joint press conference in Berlin on Wednesday, reports the German magazine Der Spiegel, when Merkel was asked about revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency has been secretly collecting Internet and phone data on ordinary citizens and on foreigners from tech companies under its PRISM program. Merkel responded, diplomatically, that the Internet is "neuland," or uncharted territory, for everyone.

German social media users have jumped on Merkel's somewhat dated language with derision, tweeting the hashtag #Neuland more than 40,000 times in the past two days. One popular meme depicts a Photoshopped Merkel staring confusedly at the impassive Grumpy Cat. (“Welcome to Neuland. Now go home!” the caption reads). Another shows Merkel standing next to a Subaru Forester, the the ad-like slogan translating, roughly, to “for those who like to explore new territory.” A series of tongue-in-cheek blogs -- including "News From Neuland" and "Das Internet ist für uns alle neuland" ("the Internet is new territory for all of us") -- have even sprung up to chronicle the memes.

Merkel’s spokesman was eventually forced to clarify that the chancellor was referring to new territory for political debate -- which probably seems obvious to the casual observer.

But as The Washington Post’s Max Fisher has discussed in some depth here on World Views, Germans are not the most casual observers on this issue. Reaction to the NSA scandal has been particularly severe in Germany, where the government has a long history of defending privacy rights online. In fact, discussing PRISM at the news conference was Merkel's idea, a response to the anger that many German citizens, politicians and tech activists have expressed in the wake of the revelations.

Merkel, for her part, has both criticized and expressed cautious support for PRISM in meetings with Obama, the New York Times reports. But the chancellor is also up for reelection this year, which could help explain the busy fascination with her "neuland" comment.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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