It could have been the ultimate practical joke of this year.
Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, appointed Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg "to promote internet freedom globally". According to her press release, this "appointment forms a key element of a new "No Disconnect Strategy" to uphold the EU's commitment to ensure human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected both online and off-line, and that internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) can remain a driver of political freedom, democratic development and economic growth."
But sadly, it is not a joke.
Guttenberg, who was briefly Germany's minister for economics and technology (Feb 2009 until Oct 2009) and then minister of defense (until 1 March 2011), fell from grace when it was revealed that he had plagiarized large chunks of his doctoral thesis. Internet activists set up a wiki and within a few weeks managed to publicly document that 94.4 (!) percent of the pages in Guttenberg's thesis contained plagiarized text. Of course people made (and make) fun of Guttenberg, calling him "Googleberg" or "Doctor Copy & Paste", or promoting a "Guttenberg"-keyboard (for maximum efficiency, just Ctrl+C+V).Guttenberg, who had denied all allegations when he was first confronted ("absurd allegation"), had to resign, the university stripped him of his degree, and the state prosecutor started investigations. In May 2011, the university's investigation came to the conclusion that Guttenberg "had manifestly and gravely breached the standards of good scientific practice and had cheated with intent" (my translation, more information on the Guttenberg-case - in German - at the university's website). Not even a month ago, the state prosecutor came to the conclusion that Guttenberg had, with intent, committed criminal breaches of copyright in 23 counts, but closed the case after Guttenberg payed 20.000 Euro to a charity (press release of the state prosecutor's office, in German); this is a common way of dealing with petty crimes (misdemeanours) where there is no public interest in further prosecution (section 153a of the German Code of Criminal Procedure act).
Guttenberg is not repentant: just three weeks ago he published a book called "Vorerst gescheitert" ("failed for now"), consisting of a long interview with a German journalist. He again denied any intent to plagiarize; rather he argued that the copying was the "fatal result of a chaotic and unsystematic mode of work", having copied from the internet and then mixed it up due to using at least 80 floppy disks (!) and four different computers (more here, in German). The respected conservative daily FAZ commented: "Guttenberg has not lost his ability to talk nonsense".
Guttenberg has no relevant expertise in internet issues, at least no such expertise seems to be documented, and neither Kroes nor her spokesperson came up with any evidence that Guttenberg ever had any original ideas, did any research or even just was involved with specific internet-related issues. Many German commenters are heavily critical of Guttenberg's support for a German law which should block access to the internet in case of (suspected) child pornography; the relevant act was introduced when Guttenberg was minister of economics (but not by him) under the title "Zugangserschwerungsgesetz", which translates as "Act to make access [to the internet] more difficult"(!). The Act never came into force and is in the process of being formally repealed, after criticism not only by internet activists, but also by many law professors and constitutional scholars. Guttenberg defended the act and implicitely accused the critics of being against blocking of child pornography-websites (see a newspaper report here, in German).
Guttenberg's wife was involved in a TV-series called "Tatort Internet" ("Crime Scene Internet"), which tried to lure potential pedophiles into meeting underage girls and then exposed them on TV. Although the faces of the suspected pedophiles were not shown (or blurred), some of them could be identifed rather easily by TV-viewers. The series came under heavy criticism, for instance by the Minister of Justice who said "There is danger that innocent people are put in the pillory and the rule of law would be in a precarious situation. This is a high risk".
So, first of all, Guttenberg (just recently)
- has been stripped of his degree because of intellectual dishonesty,
- was found to have been a multiple copyright-infringer,
- and admitted only as much as that he was out of his depths when dealing with computers and the internet
Kroes, who was aware of all this, nevertheless thought it fit to appoint Guttenberg as her adviser. When she announced it, it still sounded like an impressive job (and remember: it is supposed to be a key element of the strategy). In the press release it said that "Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg will liaise with Member States, third countries and NGOs which are committed to work in this area and advise on how to advance the strategy in a co-ordinated and effective manner." Kroes is further quoted with: "I want Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to champion this cause with governments and NGOs and ensure it gets the attention, focus and support it deserves."
The reasons Kroes gave for this appointment are rather slim; pressed to justify her choice, she wrote:
"As he himself has acknowledged, if anyone understands the power of the internet, and its power to hold authorities to account, it is Karl-Theodor [Guttenberg]. Anyone who has worked with Karl-Theodor – and I myself have done so closely when he was German Economics Minister – would recognise his great political abilities. But what I also admire in him is his fresh and international outlook. [...]This indeed is rather troubling: Kroes is at once arguing that it is "an important job", and that "talent" - plus a "fresh and international outlook" - is all that Guttenberg is bringing to this job. And she also thinks that Guttenberg gained relevant experience in internet-related issues by having been exposed on a Website as a multiple intentional copyright-infringer who cheated with intent in his thesis (which, by the way, she describes in an interesting euphemism as being "not a saint").
If you are wondering why Karl-Theodor and not someone else, I would say that I am looking for talent, not saints. I am asking him to do an important job; nothing more, nothing less. I live in the future, not the past."
I don't think the regular Commission services would employ anyone just for having "talent" (at least I have not yet seen a single concours of EPSO just checking for talent), and I doubt that an academic cheater who was stripped of his degree could pass the vetting process for any senior position within the Commission services. While I don't take offense with "forgiveness", the logic that Kroes claims is behind Guttenberg's appointment is severely flawed: I doubt that Vice-President of the Commission Reding would consider appointing a convicted criminal as an adviser on Justice affairs and then argue: "if anyone understands the power of law enforcement, it is XY, who served 10 years in jail".
After the initial reactions (I recommend taking look at the comments to Kroes' blog entry [and the German language version] and at the Kosmopolito-blog), the Commissioner retracted: in another blog entry she wrote: "There is no payment, no staff, no special treatment. He will be providing advice and assistance to me in a personal capacity. We will keep costs to a minimum, and I can assure you I’ll squeeze him for every good idea and every piece of feedback he has." Her spokesperson commented that "People need to keep this choice in perspective; it is just one element of the wider no disconnect strategy".
So we are left to wonder: is this an important job, including the task to liaise with governments and NGOs and thus to "champion a cause" - all of which would require a clear mandate, duties and responsibilities - or is it merely a rather vague invitation to a personal friend of the Commissioner to share a few ideas, just having the EU pay for a few trips? Kroes' spokesperson explicitely stated that Guttenberg will not be a special adviser (who are under certain obligations under staff regulations, and who come in a paid and an unpaid variety), so we do not know what kind of relationship this should be, what (if any) mandate Guttenberg has, which (if any) staff regulations apply, which confidentiality agreements, etc. etc.
Personally, I am also deeply sceptical about unpaid advisers, because they either have to be quite rich to be able to fulfill their tasks or they are in effect paid by someone else who is not necessarily disclosed or lacks transparency (Guttenberg is working for a US-based lobbying organisation / "think-tank", which by the way is not registered in the EU transparency register). I don't buy into conspiracy theories, which also abound in the comments on Kroes's blog entries (ACTA, PNR, NATO, everything is mixed in, all forming part of a supposed greater story), to me all of this looks more like a new chapter to "The March of Folly".
The appointment of Guttenberg as an adviser (or whatever his position/function might turn out to be) not only severely discredits the whole No Disconnect-Strategy, it also shows an incredible lack of judgment by the Commissioner and her staff. Kroes stressed that Guttenberg was her choice and her idea, and she is at least to be commended for not trying to blame her (other) advisers for this abysmal decision.
Kroes could have backed down: she could have apologized for not having thought this through, for having been distracted by more important issues and for not having paid enough attention to who should take this job. And then she could have cancelled the appointment of Guttenberg, to present a true expert as a new special adviser. I even waited a few days before writing this blog entry, because I thought Kroes might find a way out and get rid of Guttenberg. But instead of limiting the damage already done, Kroes chose to widen it and to defend Guttenbergs's choice.
Obviously Kroes thinks that there are only some particularly concerned German internet activists who produce nothing more than a storm in a (German) teacup (at least that is what the comments of her spokesperson on the Kosmopolito-blog said, for instance here).
I do not share this view.
As evidenced - among others - by this blog post, there are people outside of Germany who do not believe in the wisdom of appointing a disgraced former politician to be an adviser in a field where he is not an expert and does not command the trust of the people he should "liaise" with. Critics include not only some hotheaded activists, but also many highly reputable academics, because appointing Guttenberg can only be seen as a deliberate provocation of the academic community and its values. This appointment will come back to haunt Kroes in any future decision she will take: as she showed such lack of judgment in appointing Guttenberg, how can she be trusted to show more judgment and take reasoned decisions in other matters?
To sum it up: The appointment of Guttenberg was wrong, and the decision to stick with him casts a serious doubt on Kroes' overall power of judgment.
PS: Kroes asked that we should judge "Karl-Theodor [Guttenberg] ultimately on the quality of the advice he provides", which calls for that advice to be published in full (because otherwise how could we judge it?). If published, I am sure that there will be a wiki devoted to scrutinising this advice.