5G: from popular anger to people’s initiatives

Looking unhappy about 5G in Bern, September 2019. © Keystone / Anthony Anex

As authorities, telecoms companies, and experts struggle to communicate the dangers and merits of 5G, Swiss voters might end up having the last word – even if the issue seems more technical than political.

This content was published on December 6, 2019 - 11:18
swissinfo.ch

No less than five separate campaigns for people’s initiatives are currently underway, all riding the waves of popular discontent that have coalesced in recent months into a “real rebellion”, as campaigner Hans-Ulrich Jakob put it last week.

And while each ingredient of this “initiative salad” is operating with a shared overall goal in mind (make the technology safe for citizens), each is also clearly individual – so much so that, for now, there are no signs of overt cooperation.

For example: 

– the initiative ‘For a health-conscious and energy-efficient mobile communications’, which started collecting signatures in October, has a range of demands: firmly fix the limit-values for wave frequencies; clearly differentiate indoor and outdoor limits for such waves; and establish wave-free zones in schools and sections of public transport.

– the ‘Responsibility for mobile telephony’ initiative, on the other hand, proposes one simple constitutional change: make telecoms companies liable for bodily or material damage caused by waves – unless they can prove their technology was not the cause.

– a third initiative wants to lower the frequency limits and place fines on operators that don’t respect them, while the fourth has a more structural goal: give local authorities control over how the technology is developed, at what speed it is rolled out, and where base stations should be built or upgraded.

– finally, frequencia, a consumer protection group, is in the final stages of drafting its text, which broadly aims to “rethink the planning of the 5G network and make it more sustainable and efficient”, according to group vice-president Tamlin Schibler-Ulmann. Key demands will likely be a call for lower maximum frequency limits and an assurance that 5G waves will not penetrate into private homes, she says.

Complement or compete?

So much for the various threads. Politically, however, will they be able to unite to form a coherent front? Or do they risk cancelling each other out?

Schibler-Ulmann says the number of initiatives is positive. More groups means more noise, which means more media and more pressure on politicians. “We are all coming at it from different angles, but we are all pulling on the same rope”, she says.

Neither does she think the groups will damage each other’s chances of ballot-box success: “if a citizen is willing to sign one anti-5G initiative, they will be willing to sign four”.

Richard Koller, president of the group campaigning for municipal control over 5G rollout (to be launched officially in March), is also not fussed about the flux.

He reckons the various plans are “completely complementary”, and that the variety is not just desirable but necessary. “5G is a broad marketing symbol for a new technology with multiple effects”, he says. “It’s too complex for one single initiative to encompass”.

Uniting around the cause

Daniel Graf, a digital democracy activist and campaign consultant, says he can’t remember any situation like this – where one single issue spawns such a plethora of groups and initiatives – happening in the past decade.

But he also doesn’t think it’s detrimental.

“People want to get things moving” he says. At this early stage it’s normal that new groups emerge, “like democracy start-ups”. And in the case of 5G it’s even more natural, since there is “such a high demand for action but no single leading organization”, he says.

Whether the threads will eventually coalesce around such a single leading group is difficult to say. Koller predicts that “by the end, it will be mostly one or two” initiatives that make it before the people. One of them, he hopes, will be his.

For Graf, the litmus test for such an organization will ultimately be its ability to argue based on fact rather than fiction. For a topic like 5G, where conspiracy theories are rife and emotions high, groups that remain scientifically grounded will prove most credible, he says.

He mentions frequencia as possibly such a group. Though Schibler-Ulmann is non-committal. Frequencia naturally has some contact with other organizations, she says, and is active on general cross-cutting forums like “5G en Suisse, non merci!” But she doesn’t want to comment too much on other initiatives, or on future cooperation.

“Maybe one initiative will pull back because it wants to support another – but we’ll see what happens,” she says.

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