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posted: 6/22/2013 9:57 AM

Angela Merkel discovers the Internet — and inspires a meme

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  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the Annual Reception of the SOS Children's Village organization in Grimmen, northern Germany.

      German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the Annual Reception of the SOS Children's Village organization in Grimmen, northern Germany.
    associated press/May 2013

 
Washington Post

Barack Obama's visit to Berlin may have sparked a wave of commentary and analysis, but it was an offhand remark from German Chancellor Angela Merkel that gave birth to a meme. Responding to questions about the National Security Agency's PRISM program during a joint press conference with the U.S. president, Merkel noted that the "Internet is new territory, uncharted territory to all of us."

"And it also enables our enemies," she continued. "It enables enemies of a free, liberal order, to use it, to abuse it, to bring a threat to all of us, to threaten our way of life. And this is why we value cooperation with the United States on questions of security.

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Sounds fairly innocuous, right? The web may not exactly be a new invention, but governments around the world are still assessing its impact and capabilities, especially after the recent revelations about American spying. Unfortunately for Merkel, German Internet users are not so forgiving. The German term Merkel used for "uncharted territory," neuland (literally "new land"), conjured up images of 15th-century explorers discovering previously unknown lands. For context, the closest analogy for Americans might be former Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens' infamous description of the Internet as a "series of tubes."

Germans are nothing if not avid web users (German Wikipedia is the third-largest edition of the online encyclopedia in the world, after English and Dutch, even though German is only the 12th-most spoken language on the globe), and Merkel's comments quickly spawned a full-blown Internet meme -- replete with a hashtag, #neuland.

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