Germany’s digital infrastructure trails behind that of other countries: citizens cannot manage their affairs digitally; schools are stuck in a stone age of blackboards and chalk. Christian Lindner, chairman of the German liberal party FDP, sees much room for improvement.
iRights.Media: Mr Lindner, as Chair of the FDP, when you look at the digital policy of the federal government, how would you evaluate developments in recent years? Are you satisfied?
Christian Lindner: The government underestimates the digital transformation underway. We are witnessing a thorough change in economy and society. But current digital policy is far too restrained, there is no overarching strategy. In Germany, we are still using cables instead of fibre optics. The public administration is still working with paper, instead of at last modernising and becoming more efficient.
Where do you see the greatest need for action?
Above all, in digital infrastructure: We are below average in terms of the rest of Europe on this issue. While other countries are investing billions in fibre optics, we are doing nothing. Instead, we are making one single company, Telecom, the monopolist provider in 8,000 locations. They are still using copper cables instead of the faster fibre optics. We urgently need investment in fibre optic infrastructure that runs into double-digit billions. Otherwise we will still be average in the next decade too.
How can we boost construction of fibre optic networks?
My proposal would be to privatize the German public postal service Deutsche Post AG, sell the state’s shares in it. It is already a publicly-traded company. That would bring in a good eight billion Euros, which could then be invested in digital infrastructure, in particular in the countryside where the market can’t provide.
In Germany and in Europe, there is a lot of debate surrounding the power of internet companies like Google or Facebook. Should internet platforms be more tightly regulated?
The user has to be at the centre of the discussion. Part of the reason that platforms are so powerful is because users can no longer make their own decisions about how their personal data is used. That has to change; every individual user must recover their sovereignty over their own data, so that their hand is strengthened against that of the platforms. The same applies to the relationship between commercial enterprises. Having a social market economy means that no player can become so strong as to be able to dictate the rules of the game to others. In the platform economy, the big players like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and the rest are able to do just that. That is why state regulatory authorities like the cartel office need to be properly equipped. And we have to ensure that the legal framework is adequate. We must ensure that platforms do not exploit their market power to obstruct competition with other companies.
An important topic over the last year online was intellectual copyright for newspaper and magazine publishers. Some forecast the end of the internet, others, the end of journalism. How do you see the issue?
Although this might be an unpopular thing to say: I am of the view that intellectual property should be protected just as much as physical property. And I question whether business models that rely on using and marketing content created by others without asking them should really be tolerated. That is the core of the debate. The ancillary copyright for press products which we have introduced in Germany is not working as many would have liked. Thus it hardly seems sensible to transfer this model to the European level. But we should have a calm debate over how Google and other aggregators use third-party content. In the end, a European regulation should prevail within the framework of a digital European internal market.
Do you have any suggestions as to how new ideas can be brought to bear on the topic?
From my point of view, all participants should get back to the drawing board and think about how to provide a fair balance between their various interests. The agreement reached in 2016 between Youtube and GEMA shows that this is possible. If it works in the music sector it should also work for publishers on the one hand and Google et al. on the other. In the end there has to be a solution that provides full freedom to content users. We do not want to ban people from linking to other content. On the contrary, that creates new knowledge. But on the other hand, the providers of digital content have to be able to finance their work—otherwise there will be nothing to link to.
In terms of social networks, Facebook is criticized in particular because it appears to be allowing free rein to hateful comments. Do we need stronger rules against hate speech?
There is a problem with the Federal Government. It seems to want to intervene more and more in what Facebook does. I am wary of this. The current regulatory framework is generally adequate; it should be used consistently.
Digitalization of public administration is an important topic. Most official procedures still have to be done with by citizens in person. What should be done here?
Many requirements and procedures don’t fit digital processes. Financial agreements, for example, for reasons of bank oversight, have to be signed on paper. That is a major impediment for startups in this sector, the so-called Fintechs. Why is there no video identification here, which is even more secure than a signature? It is harder to fake a video of me saying a particular phrase than a signature. There are many, many hurdles and administrative regulations which could be changed.
Why is change in administration so slow?
My suspicion is that digitalization-related initiatives are moving at a snail’s pace in the current administration because responsibilities are distributed in different places. There is no one who sees digitalization as their key role. I believe that bundling the powers into one role could help speed up change. Also, the public administration must invest in modernising its technology. Naturally, that costs money, naturally the process must be given careful consideration—but in the long run, inaction will cost more.
In terms of digitalization, where do you see the FDP’s focus lying, in comparison to other parties?
For us, digitalization has enormously far-reaching consequences—comparable with the industrial revolution. It is a huge opportunity for improving productivity and social participation. That is why for us, digitalization is a central theme. We were the only party to dedicate a whole party conference to digitalization in the previous year. We called it “Betarepublik”.
To take an example: If you want to talk about education policy, you have to talk about digitalization. That is because it is the lever for more individual development. Schools have to come out of the blackboard era. The program of the current Federal Minister for Education and Research, Johanna Wanka, is too conservative. Above all it omits a reform of responsibilities on the federal states in Germany. If we want digital modernization, you can’t reinvent the wheel sixteen times over for each state.
Interview by Philipp Otto.
“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!