Caution! Digital!

Fearing Snooping, Germans Shun Internet

Internet Usage Bloomberg
Many Germans are wary of going online.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germans are suspicious of snooping by businesses and states. But their lackluster reception of the digital revolution will put them on the back foot in the coming age of the Internet of Things.

  • Facts


    • Germans aged 20-39 are the most sophisticated Internet users.
    • Among non-users of the Internet, more than 50 percent said they have concerns about security or data protection.
    • The annual study polled more than 30,000 Germans above the age of 14.
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E-mail, social media, search engines, video streaming, online shopping. To many of us, these have become indispensible tools for everyday life. But to a surprisingly large number of Germans, the Internet remains suspicious and alien.

A survey of 30,000 Germans aged 14 and above shows that a just under a quarter never go online. Meanwhile, of the 77.6 percent who do use the Internet, only few use video streaming sites such as YouTube.

The study was carried out by Initiative D21, a state-fund umbrella group of different organizations, linked to the German economics ministry. It suggests 22.3 percent of Germans still communicate, work and get news exclusively in the offline world.

When asked why, over half of non-users cited privacy concerns and said they “don’t want to be monitored.” A larger proportion, 66 percent, said they simply had no interest in using the Internet or that they enlisted others, such as friends or family members, to do things for them on the web. When asked about news, 67 percent of non-users said traditional media such as broadcasters and newspapers were sufficient for their needs.

Over half of non-users cited privacy concerns and said they didn't want to be monitored.

Of those 77.6 percent of Germans who do go online, around 94 percent regularly use search engines to find information. A far lower percentage, 64 percent, shop online and just 56 percent use online banking facilities. After a sharp dip following Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about NSA spying, the share of German Internet users on social media is now back up to 64 percent.

The results reflects Germans’ deeply engrained distrust of state snooping stemming from the experience of two dictatorships in the 20th century.

About 60 percent of those polled consider government-regulated storing of their data to be wrong and 57 percent don’t trust the government to handle their data. Slightly more, 60 percent, don’t trust companies either.

This comes weeks after the German parliament finally passed a law in mid-October that requires telecommunications companies to store customer communications data for four to 10 weeks, following several years of bitter debate.

Yet the study also threw up some contradictions in Germans online behavior. A full 84 percent said they don’t think it’s right to give a provider access to personal data in exchange for a service such as an app. Yet only just over a third said they would be prepared to pay for a service to stop their data being used.

Meanwhile, just 63 percent said they check the terms of service to see whether personal data is being shared with third parties.

Overall, the survey also suggests that the majority of those Germans who are online aren’t using newer services. Just 21 percent, for instance, make use of video streaming platforms such as Netflix and only 4 percent use e-health self-monitoring apps. Five percent are making use of smart-home apps, which allow users to control heating and electricity consumption while away from home.

Meanwhile, just 22 percent of all employed people use the Internet to regularly work from home or on the road. Many said the main obstacle was being required to be physically accessible at work. Technical barriers in the workplace made working digitally more difficult for a third of respondents.

One reason for the Germans’ relatively lackluster approach to the digital revolution is that IT skills aren’t being taught in the workplace. Only 43 percent of working people said that they had learned about new computer programs and the Internet through training programs offered by their employers.


Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on energy policies, small- and medium-sized companies and innovation. To contact the author:

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