Digital Policy 2021 Annual Review by Alexander Rabe, Managing Director eco – Association of the Internet Industry

As another Covid year draws to a close, let’s take the opportunity to review the digital policy highlights of this year!

To begin with the brightest news of the year: In these Covid times, digital infrastructures, digital technologies and digital applications have kept things up and running, thereby contributing to combatting the pandemic by switching physical contacts to the virtual.

And alongside this, the Internet industry has also contributed to achieving the climate goals: according to Greenpeace, just one day of home office per week can save 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 per year in Germany alone – thanks to digital technologies. The eco-balance of digitalisation in Germany remains positive.

When it comes to German digital policy, however, the most significant momentum was arguably the formation of our new German federal government, which presented its coalition agreement just a few weeks ago.

In each chapter of this agreement, the cross-cutting digital approaches read well and are all-embracing, and the right topics and need for action have been identified. The will of the future German federal government for a digital awakening can be clearly recognised.

An aspect which is particularly positive is the clear emphasis on trust and security in digital technologies, especially through the introduction of vulnerability management. Another factor which is also be welcomed is the clear determination for innovation and a strong technology location – for example, through the purposeful roll-out of digital infrastructures, the funding of “real world laboratories”, and the accelerated digitalisation of the state and public administration. When it comes to the “digital education” priority, it is well known that the devil continues to lie in the federal system. A major challenge that definitely needs to be solved in the coming years!

The complex joint topic of digitalisation & sustainability is also addressed in the coalition agreement. For a long time now, we have been pointing out – through key initiatives such as the Alliance for the Strengthening of Digital Infrastructures in Germany, which was founded under the umbrella of eco – that these two topics must be coalesced and considered together. This is the case because digital infrastructures, as well as digital technologies and services consistently used in the right domains, offer immense potential for tackling climate change and reaching other sustainability goals. For further information, you can also see our published study on The Smart City Market and its special chapter on “Smart City & Sustainability”.

With the approaches addressed in the coalition agreement therefore being good and comprehensive, and the right topics and need for action identified, the question now is how the new German federal government will succeed in implementing a consistent and at the same time ambitious digital policy across all ministries, given that they have not appointed a centrally coordinated Ministry for Digitalisation. As I see it, this will require an overarching digital strategy that provides a clear roadmap for the digital transformation in Germany and that is taken on board and supported by all ministries.

In the realm of security and trust on the Internet, 2021 was also a good year.

The opinion of the ECJ Advocate General in the Spacenet AG case vs the Federal Republic of Germany, which was heard in November, should bring about the demise of the already controversial German regulation on indiscriminatory data retention. This should hopefully see an inglorious chapter of German digital policy now finally being erased from the history of German digital legislation.

A ruling by the ECJ is likely to be made some time from February 2022 onwards.

The ECJ aside, the new German federal government could set an example by taking up this initiative and instigating the repeal of data retention regulations in Germany.

Last week, the German Federal Council (Bundesrat) also voted against too much state surveillance online and rejected the planned obligation for telecommunications providers to assist in WhatsApp surveillance.

At the European level, there were also some groundbreaking digital policy decisions and developments this year that will shape the Internet and digital markets for years to come.

With the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the Member States have agreed on two major pieces of framework legislation for digital platforms and digital services in Europe. In shaping the DSA, it will now be important to maintain a clear line and not overload the instrument with special regulations. It is important that the obligations laid down in the DSA can also – and especially – be practicable for small and micro enterprises, or that these businesses are exempted from these requirements. Definitions must be comprehensible and concrete. The liability regime and the principles of the e-Commerce Directive must continue to apply.

In summary, it can thus be concluded:

From a digital policy perspective, it was an eventful year which once again showed us that digitalisation and digital policy issues are increasingly being acknowledged and discussed by a broad section of the public.

More than 60 percent of the German citizens surveyed by eco and Civey before the Bundestag elections considered the influence of digital technologies and services on their private and professional everyday life to be large or even very large.

This confirms my conviction that we must work more than ever for an Internet and a digital transformation that benefits all people equally, that makes our lives easier, and that helps us to master the great challenges facing humanity. No more, but also no less.

At eco, in 2022 we will therefore continue to work “for the good of the Internet”. This is just what our eco Complaints Office – whose 25th anniversary we celebrated this year – has managed to do so successfully since it was founded in close cooperation with providers and state law enforcement agencies; and the eco Complaints Office was even able to slightly increase its success rate in this anniversary year.

I am looking forward to a multifaceted and exciting new year 2022, and especially to the digital policy exchange with our new Digital Minister Volker Wissing, as well as the entire new German federal government, not to mention the Internet politicians in the European Parliament, the German parliament, the Bundestag and the German federal state parliaments.

Alexander Rabe