Raising the Bar for Germany’s Tech Diplomacy

February 26, 2024

The German government has recently published its first Strategy for International Digital Policy. This opinion analyzes its key elements from the perspective of the Digital Commons.

This strategy creates an interesting opportunity to hold a country accountable to the values it promotes and to create a more coherent framework around the sometimes scattered institutions involved in global digital policymaking. This can include domestic investments in initiatives with a global impact, Germany’s positions within the EU or within standardization bodies, or even development projects funded by the German government abroad. In the short term, the document also makes it possible to judge Germany’s negotiating strategy in the context of preparing for the Summit of the Future in September 2024, where member states of the United Nations will negotiate the Global Digital Compact.

In August 2022, Germany announced its national Digital Strategy, and the new international digital policy builds on that document. The policy document is being published against a critical backdrop, marked by growing geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, the war between Russia and Ukraine, and the conflicts in the Middle East and the Caucasus, all of which include a technological battle and the militarization of the digital infrastructure. At the same time, the need for international cooperation on cybersecurity and shared infrastructures is increasingly recognized.

At Open Future, we are interested in this strategy because it sets a good precedent and contains many policy principles that we strongly believe in. Nonetheless, some gaps in the strategy need to be filled: decisive commitments from Germany to shape a society-centered digital transformation built on the Digital Commons are required.

Germany’s international strategy firmly anchors the foundations for an open Internet

The German strategy clearly advocates for a global, open, free, and secure Internet. Germany reaffirms its commitment to Net Neutrality and the multistakeholder Internet governance model. The strategy also emphasizes the importance of addressing new critical aspects of Internet governance: it advocates promoting and protecting open source foundational technologies as “important technical building blocks of the global Internet and foundation of digital sovereignty.” Germany’s participation in international initiatives such as the Digital Public Goods Alliance or the GovStack initiative makes this commitment even more credible.

This is particularly important as there is an urgent need to reaffirm a view of the Internet as not just a Hobbesian “cyberspace” but a domain of cooperation and shared responsibility. A commitment to building an Open Internet by working together on shared standards and norms is an essential part of this strategy. This commitment needs to be balanced with the agenda for EU digital sovereignty. Open Future has been working on a path for Europe to find this balance.

The strategy also underlines the importance of promoting “data infrastructures with open interfaces.” Through initiatives such as the Common European Data Spaces, pioneering efforts are being made at the international level to establish frameworks that allow data circulation while ensuring transparency, security, privacy, and trust. This has become even more urgent with the development of AI technologies, which rely on shared infrastructure and commons. However, there is a need for more clarity on how such data infrastructures will be governed. Open APIs, for example, are not enough to effectively limit the current centralization of the digital economy. We also need to ensure that user communities and the interests of society, not just industry leaders, are represented in the design of such data infrastructures.

Germany should take on greater global responsibility to shape a society-centered digital transformation

German commitment to the open Internet and global efforts to promote secure global infrastructures is vital. The German government should, however, show even more international leadership in proactively defining and shaping new technological trajectories for our societies. Such a trajectory should include building healthier Digital Public Spaces, without which it is impossible to guarantee citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms effectively.

Amid geopolitical challenges and attacks on democracy and freedom online, it is imperative to build and maintain digital spaces that are not controlled by a few but open to all, allowing public institutions and civil society to play a greater role. This requires a shift from fixing market failures to a generative policy framework. Germany has the opportunity to take a leading role within the European Union to promote this agenda and work toward creating a European Public Digital Infrastructure Fund. This effort should go beyond the IT infrastructures mentioned in this strategy and the current EU conversations on digital sovereignty. It should also tackle the layer of online services and operate on a much larger scale than existing national initiatives.

Finally, Germany’s international policy needs to shape a different digital society that goes beyond market-driven dynamics. While the human-centered approach protects individual rights, it’s crucial to address the collective challenges of our interconnected global society. This requires a society-centered approach. Legitimate attempts to find policy answers to these challenges should not be presented as obstacles to “diversity of services and freedom of choice” or “making accessible the newest technology.”

For instance, data governance needs to be defined along societal needs, not according to market demands for secure cross-border flows only. This means recognizing their central role in organizing societies and power structures. Data spaces should boast open interfaces, but should also be designed in collaboration with user communities, ensuring democratic governance. This requires effective support for the digital commons, which represent promising avenues for civil society to reclaim online spaces.

Alternative governance of digital products and services should contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and ensure that communities are involved in defining their society’s technological future.

More ambitious commitments from European States to build alternative Digital Public Spaces are needed

Germany’s strategy supports the open Internet’s essential foundations and recognizes the need to strengthen international cooperation on “sustainable digital infrastructure globally while avoiding critical dependencies.” It was published in the context of a global shift in the discourse on technology, recognizing that digital transformation is no longer a natural process driven by markets and that public interventions should go beyond competition around innovation or regulation to fix market failures. In this context, we believe that the strategy still lacks ambition and decisive commitments from the German government to embrace its potential role in shaping a society-centered digital transformation domestically and within the EU. It should be expanded to define clear priorities, and a course of action to actively foster alternative Digital Public Spaces and support community-driven initiatives beyond the narrow confines of market dynamics and zero-sum sovereignty objectives.

Jan Krewer
keep up to date
and subscribe
to our newsletter