Like never before, Germany’s federal government is in need of a unified and up-to-date internet policy. Thus far, it has proven unable to rise to the challenge. What follows is a plea for a solution to the nation’s digital plight.
Shaping digitalization is without a doubt the greatest political and social task of the 21st century. Internet policy has long ceased to be a niche topic for a few nerds. In parliament, hardly a day goes by without discussion of digital policy issues, often across many committees at once. The forces that digitalization and the internet have summoned are disruptive: they are effecting a massive transformation of our society, and rendering old certainties and shared assumptions void.
In 2016, acknowledging these realities is a banality. But the German federal government has still not recognized the necessity of active political intervention to guide this change in our society. Everyone is tending their own internet policy garden. Even at this year’s IT summit, the whole cabinet will be present. Nobody is really in charge, and a coherent digital strategy is still not being pursued.
Digital policy decisions blocked for years
Inconsistencies abound in the approach thus far taken by our government. Ministers are working against, rather than with, each other, blocking and delaying digital policy decisions for years on end. Going through a single point of contact? Not with this government. When internet policy actually is shaped, then it is on the terms of big companies, not of users, keyword vectoring, intellectual property or net neutrality. As unbelievable as it may sound, there is a seriously attempt underway to create a renaissance in copper wire, and a totally misguided German law that helps no one is now being pushed on the European level with the help of Günter Oettinger. The most basic principle of the internet has been consciously sold out, in order to be able to impose meaningless sanctions for offenses committed online in Germany.
Whether it is the failure to create legal security regarding liability for interference, the urgent need for new expertise regarding copyright, or the overdue proposal for an Open Data Law—there is still no sign of the legislation and leadership which has been promised for years. From data protection to the fight against clearly criminal speech online, businesses which persist in ignoring clear German and European legal directives are only sanctioned with public statements by government declaring one unenforceable deadline after another, the only effect of which is to inspire derision.
The wrong kind of business applications
First there was an attempt to water down the EU Data Protection Reform; now it is simply not being implemented. Instead of finally rolling up their sleeves and protecting citizens’ basic rights, politicians prefer to undermine legal standards such as the principle of data economy which were the fruit of decades of hard struggle. Whether the electronic proof of income ELENA, the electronic ID card, or De-Mail, the failure of almost all major government IT initiatives has still not inspired any serious rethinking. Still precisely the wrong kind of business applications are being implemented on the basis of inadequate IT security standards. Still nobody seems to have realised that innovative data protection could be an important locational advantage.
Ultimately, the secret service is being let off the hook for massive illegal surveillance. Wiretapping between friends and allies is proceeding apace. Supervisory structures are consciously not being strengthened, and parliamentary control is being increasingly rendered impossible. All of this is a political choice. The many opportunities presented by digitalization are being overlooked. Trust in the most important infrastructure of our times just isn’t there.
Based on the present outlook, we can only hope that in 2017 a federal government will be elected that recognizes all this and does a much better job in bundling powers and streamlining authority, while actively intervening to ensure that the digital revolution is shaped actively and politically, in the interests of citizens and users. We need a government that takes on the many ethical questions posed by the internet and digitalization, and understands that if we do not do our utmost to defend hard-won basic legal standards on the internet, we will soon lose them elsewhere. Time is pressing.
“Das Netz – digitalization and Society. English edition” gathers writers, activists, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs to think about the developments of our digital life. More than 50 contributions reflect on the digital transformation of society. It is available as a free PDF. Download here!