The GFF (Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte / Society for Civil Rights) is a Berlin-based non-profit NGO founded in 2015. Its mission is to establish a sustainable structure for successful strategic litigation in the area of human and civil rights in Germany and Europe.
GFF’s initial cases focus on protecting privacy, freedom of information and freedom of the press against state intrusion, and on defending equal freedom for all. These are the realms that GFF’s founders are most active in and that currently present both particularly critical challenges as well as litigation opportunities. GFF’s longer-term mission is to help protect and strengthen human and civil rights in general by legal means, thus permanently improving human and civil rights law all over Europe.
German courts have developed a tradition of upholding civil rights against state intrusion, especially in the area of data protection. The Federal Constitutional Court has achieved an excellent reputation as a human rights court, and its jurisprudence resonates with other courts across Europe. With the added advantage of a relatively low cost of litigation, Germany is a great location for this mission.
Strategic litigation is an indispensable instrument for the targeted enforcement of human and civil rights. While it has been successfully employed for decades by our US partner organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it is still hardly used in Germany. However, precedent also plays a crucial role with the German Federal Constitutional Court and the European courts.
With its partners, GFF goes to court to protect human and civil rights in Germany and Europe.
Three elements of our work are crucial for our success:
- a long-term strategy for civil and human rights,
- a careful selection of our cases in light of this strategy and
- the right plaintiffs.
A State that Breaks the Law Cannot Protect it
GFF pursues strategic litigtion with a clear focus: We strengthen civil and human rights against state intrusion.
For example, GFF defends the right to privacy, freedom of information and the freedom of the press against unjustified interference. To that end, it brings suitable plaintiffs in contact with excellent legal experts in order to jointly bring rights violations to court.
At the same time, as an NGO, GFF is working to establish a durable structure in order to be able to also apply the instrument of strategic litigation to other rights, such as freedom from discrimination.
Proceeding with a Plan, Reliability and Staying Power
“Big” cases need to be carefully built—this requires the knowhow and expertise of specialized lawyers and clear criteria for selecting cases, plaintiffs and courts. Such cases need time and therefore also the type of long-term structures that GFF is establishing, building an office for litigation, public relations work and fundraising.
GFF is the organization for substainably successful strategic litigation on civil rights in Germany. In order to be efficient and effective, to join know-how and forces, GFF works closely with a network of established NGOs, associations and activists. We bring together actors for human rights at the European level and work with especially experienced teams from the United States.
GFF is pioneering strategic litigation for civil rights in Germany. Therefore, it is part of our strategy to raise broad awareness for this topic. In the media, GFF promotes reporting that is correct on the facts and gives civil rights the center stage they deserve.
This requires a close network and constructive engagement both with big media players and with specialized editorial offices and organizations such as Netzpolitik.org, Reporters Without Borders and Chaos Computer Club.
Every Case Can Be a Success for Civil Rights
Winning a case is an obvious factor for success. But risky cases, too, can carry opportunities for human and civil rights. Previous losses can be an important basis for later success in higher instances. Moreover, every case—whatever the outcome—is an opportunity to engage the public on human rights issues, to inform citizens via the media and to convince them of the importance of the issue. Even spectacular defeats for civil rights can lay the ground for progress, if they are accompanied by careful public relations work.
Taking these factors into account, GFF strategically selects its cases, plaintiffs and partners and supports them through legal expertise and active, information oriented campaigning. This approach guarantees that the case not only addresses isolated legal issues, but that it has a sustainable effect for human and civil rights both at the legal and at the societal level.
Litigating to Protect Rights: Our Cases
GFF’s first cases focus on the protection of privacy, freedom of information and freedom of the press against state intrusion. We believe that in the digital era, everyone should be in control of their data and be able to determine what happens with them. This protection carries even greater weight where journalists and their sources, including whistleblowers, are concerned. It also concerns public-private cooperation in areas such as data preservation, the exchange of of airline passenger data, border protection and the regulation of financial transactions.
An effective civil rights monitoring requires that everyone must be able to easily and effectively obtain information on how their data are used and processed. Governmental transparency and easy access to public documents and data are therefore of key importance. Finally, liberty requires equality; GFF is therefore committed to combating any form of discrimination against minorities such as handicapped people or asylum seekers and refugees.
- GFF’s first case is a constitutional complaint against the monitoring of data traffic and the warrantless spying on telecommunications between targets abroad by Germany’s foreign intelligence service. This case is still under preparation.
- A separate constitutional complaint has been filed with Amnesty International against strategic mass surveillance in accordance with the so-called “G 10” Act, which restricts the freedom of communication under Article 10 of the German Basic Law.
- Moreover, GFF has established a sustainable structure to support strategically relevant transparency law suits under the German Freedom of Information Act.
- GFF and the Open Knowledge Foundation brought a constitutional complaint against unduly strict requirements in the Transparency Act of Rhineland-Palatinate, which are incompatible with the freedom of information (click here for more information in German – English version to follow).
- Together with the German section of Reporters without Borders and other partners, GFF has filed a constitutional complaint against a new anti-whistleblower provision in the Criminal Code, which threatens investigative journalists and their supporting experts with prison sentences.
- GFF also supports a female journalist working with the German public broadcaster ZDF in her Equal Pay lawsuit (click here for more information in German – English version to follow).
- GFF filed a constitutional complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court against the near-unlimited surveillance authorities of the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
Further cases are currently under preparation and will be published in due course.
The GFF Team
Ulf Buermeyer is President of GFF and a judge in criminal cases at the Berlin Superior Court. He holds an LL.M. from Columbia Law School and a PhD from the University of Frankfurt/Main. He is a fellow of the Centre for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) at Europa-Universität Viadrina (Frankfurt/Oder). His scholarly work focuses on constitutional law, especially the freedom of information and telecommunication and control of personal data, and on criminal law. His PhD thesis dealt with informational self-determination in correctional facilities. Together with journalist Philip Banse he hosts a weekly podcast on politics, “Lage der Nation” (State of the Nation).
Nora Markard is Vice President of GFF and a Junior Professor for Public and International Law and Global Constitutionalism at the University of Hamburg. She studied Law and International Relations in Berlin, Paris and London and was a visiting fellow at the University of Michigan and at Columbia Law School. She holds a PhD from Humboldt University Berlin and an MA from King’s College London. She has published widely on international and constitutional law issues, her PhD on war refugees won the 2012 Humboldt prize. She is a co-founder of the Humboldt Law Clinic Human and Fundamental Rights and the director of the Refugee Law Clinic Hamburg.
Malte Spitz is GFF’s Secretary General and a writer, civil rights activist, politician and a consultant on data protection. In his 2014 book “Was macht ihr mit meinen Daten?” (“What are you doing with my data?”), he investigated the way public agencies and corporations mine private data. He is a member of several Green party committees and spokesman of the federal working group on Media and Internet Policy. His political activism covers issues such as media and internet policy and civil rights. He is actively involved in international Green networks and speaks on data protection, digital change in society and the economy as well as internet policy.
Boris Burghardt is member oft he GFF board and visiting professor for criminal law at the University of Hamburg. He studied law in Vienna, Berlin and Salamanca. He received his habilitation at the Humboldt University of Berlin, after serving several years as research assistant of Prof. Dr. Gerhard Werle. His research focus is German and International criminal law, with special interest in law philosophy and contemporary legal history. He is member of the „Arbeitskreis Völkerstrafrecht“ and of the Association Internationale de Droit Pénale.
Katharina Mikulčak handles our press relations. She is an expert in PR and Public Affairs and used to work for several NGO´s before, e.g. Save the Children and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). She has a journalistic background and worked for several media outlets in Germany and abroad. For press enquiries, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Strong Network: International Support
GFF pioneers strategic litigation as an appropriate legal means to improve civil rights legislation in Germany, but also across Europe. By closing ranks with like-minded organizations, GFF creates synergies and concentrates the relevant forces from the civil societies in different European countries.
European partners include Amnesty International (Berlin/London), Bits of Freedom (Amsterdam), Chaos Computer Club (CCC, Hamburg), Digitale Gesellschaft e.V. (digiges, Berlin), the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR, Berlin), European Digital Rights – EDRi (Brussels), the Humboldt Law Clinic Internetrecht (HLCI, Berlin), La Quadrature du Net (Paris), Netzpolitik.org (Berlin), Privacy International (London) and Reporters Without Borders (Berlin/Paris).
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- Why found an organization for strategic litigation? Can’t other NGOs do that on the side?
- What is strategic litigation and what makes it “strategic”?
- Does GFF act as a plaintiff in its own cases?
- Is GFF a law firm?
- Who is behind GFF?
- How can I support GFF’s work?
- Is GFF a charity?
- Who funds GFF?
- Does GFF work with corporations and accept donations from them?
- Is GFF a politically partisan organization?
- Is GFF only active in Germany?
- Does GFF only work in its own name, or does it also participate in projects?
- Does GFF cooperate with law clinics?
- Does GFF use amicus briefs?
Why found an organization for strategic litigation? Can’t other NGOs do that on the side?
Strategic litigation is a specific legal tool that requires expertise and experience. For individual NGOs, it is usually not worth it having a specialized in-house legal practitioner. Moreover, procedures can take years, requiring long-term involvement and a durable structure. Effective litigation also calls for careful and precise communication in public relations work—nothing that can easily be done on the side. Therefore, we seek to offer a way for different NGOs to combine and coordinate their efforts by offering them a professional litigation platform. We are not trying to duplicate existing work; rather, for the majority of our cases, we cooperate with other NGOs. That way, we achieve the maximum success for the law: GFF contributes its specific expertise on strategic litgation, our partners contribute their experience with the respective issue.
What is strategic litigation and what makes it “strategic”?
Strategic litigation pursues cases in court in order to achieve goals beyond the individual case (click here to jump to our Strategy). The following procedure makes this type of litigation “strategic”:
- Ideal cases and plaintiffs as well as suitable forums are selected,
- long-term goals are pursued through a series of cases building onto one another,
- specialized legal experts proceed tactically in order to avoid errors,
- long-term cooperation with established NGOs and activists in Germany, Europe and around the globe creates synergies,
- and the law suits are complemented with targeted public relations work, mobilizing awareness for the underlying rights issues.
Does GFF act as a plaintiff in its own cases?
GFF supports law suits and sees them through. Usually, the plaintiffs are individuals who represent organizations fitting the case, or the organizations themselves. GFF has not yet acted as a plaintiff but offers legal, financial, organizational and PR support.
Is GFF a law firm?
No. GFF only coordinates, supports and finances cases. Our plaintiffs are represented by highly specialized attorneys and professors (German law professors have the right to represent clients in court).
Who is behind GFF?
GFF is run by its team and supported by its members and their contributions. GFF has around 30 members from all areas of politics, academia and civil society, including academics, writers, activists, journalists, and legal practitioners. See below for who funds GFF.
How can I support GFF’s work?
The easiest way to get involved is to donate to GFF or to become a sustaining member. If you have a case that is suitable for strategic litigation, please get in touch—we know how to do turn your case into a success for civil and human rights. If you are an attorney willing to represent our cases in court, please also email us: email@example.com, using encryption: PGP/GPG Key ID FA2C23A8 (Download).
Is GFF a charity?
According to its statute, GFF directly and exclusively pursues charitable goals. Our non-profit or charity status (Gemeinnützigkeit) is recognized under German law, such that donations are tax-exempt. GFF has also been admitted as an observer by European Digital Rights (EDRI), the association of NGOs working on digital civil rights in Europe.
Who funds GFF?
GFF’s work is funded by its members’ contributions, by its sustaining members and by donations (click here to see how you can support our work). Moreover, in its start-up phase, GFF has received contributions from a number of different NGOs and foundations, including Stiftung Bridge / Bewegungsstiftung and the Open Society Foundations. Our annual fiscal report will be published on this website.
Does GFF work with corporations and accept donations from them?
GFF focuses on cooperation with NGOs, activists and media. Depending on the case, a cooperation with a for-profit partner can be strategically valuable, e.g, in order to win corporate plaintiffs for a test case. GFF is open to donations from corporations, but will have to consider such offers case by case in order to avoid undue influence on its work.
Is GFF a politically partisan organization?
GFF is strictly non-partisan. Our mission is a commitment for our democracy, the civil rights in our Constitution, and human rights. GFF’s members include supporters of a number of different democratic parties as well as non-partisan activists.
Is GFF only active in Germany?
Unlike other NGOs who pursue a transnational approach, GFF primarily works on cases in Germany. However, GFF closely cooperates and networks with European and international partners. With our expertise, we will support rights-oriented litigation work in Europe and around the globe.
Does GFF only work in its own name, or does it also participate in projects?
GFF can work with other organizations on specific projects. For example, we are currently establishing a project on freedom of information claims together with the initiative “Frag’ den Staat” (Ask the State) which is part of the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany.
Does GFF cooperate with Law Clinics?
Yes! Legal Clinics offer students access to practical experience—something which is otherwise largely absent in German universities. Participating in research, drafting briefs and assisting with client relations, they can become involved in real cases and thereby develop a much richer understanding of the law, its impact and its challenges. GFF actively supports and promotes such ways of engaging students early on in civil and human rights issues, inter alia by cooperating with the Humboldt Law Clinic Internetrecht (HLCI).
Does GFF use amicus briefs?
Amicus curiae briefs have become a standard way of supplying the court with specific, relevant expertise in the United States. In Germany and across Europe, this instrument is not yet well established. GFF will promote this important tool for advancing civil and human rights litigation in Germany and Europe, supporting the work of cooperating organizations through its expertise and helping to raise the profile of selected cases.
Ulf Buermeyer © Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit
Nora Markard © Steffen Weigelt
Malte Spitz © Malte Spitz, CC BY 3.0
Peggy Fiebig © Michael Gottschalk