Internet Intervention

Germany's New Digital Agenda Appears Unambitious, Unfocused, Perhaps Dead on Arrival

People hold placards in support of former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a protest in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 4, 2013. Protesters demanded Germany grant Snowden asylum as they held up banners and chanted slogans in support of the former spy agency contractor. The German words on the sign (R) reads, "I also don't like surveillance all that much!"  REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Protesters in Berlin ask for asylum for U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden on July 4, 2013.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Berlin must restrain its bureaucratic tendencies to foster a freer atmosphere for digital startups and a more fruitful environment for technology businesses.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Germany lags the United States in technology startups and software development.
    • Bureaucracy is a big reason why Germany has not translated its industrial success into technology.
    • The government needs to create better financial incentives for tech entrepreneurs.
  • Audio

    Audio

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The federal government is attempting to portray Germany’s advance into the digital era as a grand undertaking: a statement of principles with visionary overtones encompasses seven chapters, numerous plans and countless announcements.

If one takes the draft of its working program as a benchmark, however, then it is not that at all. It’s more like the first stage of a long journey. But at least it is something.

Much of what the Grand Coalition and its three Internet ministers intend to accomplish points in the right direction: connecting all of Germany’s companies and citizens to the high-speed Internet within a few years is indispensable in a world that is rapidly becoming digitalized.

It is equally essential to prepare traditional industries for the future and put young, imaginative entrepreneurs on a firm footing, so that Germany won’t be a loser in this digital revolution.

 

Thus it is a step in the right direction when Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel seeks to make the National IT Summit the central platform of exchange and supervision for all participants.

But much of what Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners propose remains nebulous.

As well it must, because nowhere else are political leaders faced with the limits of their ability to make an impact as is the case with the Web. Not only because their influence stops at their country’s borders. New trends and business models arise online just as quickly as do new dangers; the state can scarcely keep up.

RUSSIA-NORWAY-NOBEL-SNOWDEN-INTELLIGENCE-SECURITY-FILES
The German government has rejected calls to let the fugitive former U.S. NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, testify before the Bundestag. Source: AP

 

A government cannot create a German Silicon Valley out of thin air, nor can it stop the online activities of spies and crooks. But it can put restraints on its own bureaucracy in order to free up entrepreneurial dynamism.

And it can impart additional momentum by providing subsidies in cases where small firms can’t move forward on their own. Financial incentives for setting up new companies is only one example. But for the government to be able to slip into the right role at the right time, it has to be in constant contact with the business community.

Thus it is a step in the right direction when Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel seeks to make a national IT summit the central platform of exchange and supervision for all participants.

But the new format must not be allowed to become bogged down in task forces and sub-committees, as was the case with its predecessor. There have been even concepts produced; the time has come for action.

 Till Hoppe is Berlin correspondent for Handelsblatt. He may be reached at hoppe@handelsblatt.com

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