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Digital Life

New territory for old politics: Internet policy

Is a Ministry of the Internet in Germany's future? Young German politicians feel it's that important. But it wouldn't mend gaps in how parties envision the future of the Internet - especially in terms of surveillance.

"The Internet is new territory for all of us," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel this summer, prompting frowns and sneers across the Internet community.

Not surprisingly, a debate ensued on Twitter under the hashtag #neuland, or "new territory." Digitalization has long become a part of daily life in Germany, of course - our lives and homes are permeated by technology. The only digitally uncharted territory remains in public policy. That's why the few politicians who focus on digital questions as well as Internet activists have been campaigning for a Ministry of Digital Affairs.

Currently, all thing digital end up at the desk of the State Minister for Cultural and Media Affairs, a position within the Interior Ministry. It's a department with much expertise in opera buildings and film festivals. But the Internet? Not an important point on the agenda.

Some conservative politicians have meanwhile joined in the calls for the establishment of an Internet department of some sort. Philipp Missfelder, chairman of the CDU/CSU youth organization Junge Union (JU), is one of them.

The head of the CDU's youth organization 'Junge Union', Philipp Missfelder (CDU (Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa)

JU chief Philipp Missfelder wants politicians to recognize the potential of the Internet.

"We don't need people who tell us, 'Let's switch off the Internet again, and let's print out the Internet's content and put the sheets into neat files'," he told DW. Instead, Missfelder said, what is needed are people who recognize the creative potential as well as the opportunities the Internet provides to users.

Lars Klingbeil, the incumbent digital affairs spokesman for the Social Democrats (SPD) group in the Bundestag, also sees the need for change. "It has become clear to everybody that this is a core topic for any country that wants to be ready for the future - since the latest NSA spying scandal," he told DW. "We have to be on top of things."

Youth group chairman Missfelder agrees that the parties are increasingly recognizing the need for action across the board.

"It's not a question of party membership - it's rather about how old you are." Even within the conservative parties, says Missfelder, the debate is no longer dominated by reactionary, anti-Internet forces.

Coalition talks get digital

Members of the "digital agenda" subgroup are now debating the right digital strategy for the future German government as part of government coalition talks between CDU/CSU and SPD. The group has recommended a new standing committee for digital policy questions.

But which institutional framework? Klingbeil, who's taking part in negotiations on behalf of the SPD, says the working group will refrain from making concrete recommendations. Whether a state minister for the Internet within the Federal Chancellery is the answer or a standalone Internet ministry, Klingbeil believes that ultimately, the question can only be decided by party heads Horst Seehofer (CSU), Angela Merkel (CDU) and Sigmar Gabriel (SPD).

Lars Klingbeil, Bundestag deputy from the SPD in his Berlin office (Photo: Imago Hendrik Smoke)

The SPD's Internet expert Lars Klingbeil believes he and his colleagues are not "geeks on the sidelines".

That said, the working group has managed to agree on some topics already: a nationwide broadband rollout, for example, as well as legal protections for suppliers of free WiFi networks and the safeguarding of net neutrality. Twitter users are following the group's progress under the #uada hashtag.

With broadband expansion, Klingbeil says it's not clear yet whether new funds will be made available for the broadband network expansion. "Implementation is subject to the funding situation," he said.

Net neutrality, too, has been a hot topic between conservatives and Social Democrats. Whether online data is treated equally without discrimination or will be delivered at preferential speeds to those who can afford it remains unclear.

Data retention blues

One thing the parties can agree upon: Digital policy should be given higher priority in the future. But then there's data retention, which divides the parties again. Conservative politicians keep pushing for more surveillance, a topic incumbent Federal Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU) has spoken at length about.

Two yellow cables and one gray power chord are plugged into the back of a black Internet router.

Internet activists have long been fighting against plans to step up surveillance.

Edward Snowden's revelations, of course, have added fuel to the fire. In a debate kicked off by Internet campaigners like Markus Beckedahl, who founded the German-language blog netzpolitik.org, the question remains: "Do we want more online surveillance, so that our secret services are able to monitor everything better - or do we want to protect basic rights, because that's what the constitution says and what the government's job is?"

Markus Beckedahl was a digital expert in the German government's committee of inquiry on "Internet and digital society." Over a period of three years, the committee, made up of 17 Internet experts and 17 members of parliament, worked on a 2,000-page paper containing digital policy suggestions. Some are now being addressed in the ongoing coalition talks.

A young movement

It's not clear yet which recommendations the future German government will be following. But even cultural pessimists will have understood by now that digital life is no longer new territory.

Much like the field of environmental protection, it took a young movement to get the ball rolling so that the issue would finally be addressed by politicians. Some say it was the Internet-savvy Pirate party that kicked off the process with its surprisingly good election result in 2009 - much as the Green party brought environmental concerns onto the political agenda with their success back in 1983.

"Digital affairs politicians like us are not geeks who're standing on the sidelines," says 35-year-old Lars Klingbeil. "We have to continue our battle."

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