06.01.2021

Digital Policy Annual Outlook 2021: Sustainable Digitalisation Can Only Succeed With Sustainable Digital Policy

The year 2021 offers an opportunity for a strategic reorientation of German and European digital policy. At the German federal policy level, a German federal government elected to office in September could set new priorities, make up for digital policy omissions and leverage the potential of digital technologies and services for the environment, society and the economy. At the European level, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act of the new European Commission, which took office in 2019, will be groundbreaking legislation that will decisively shape the European digital single market for the next decades. In this context, Oliver SĂźme, Chair of the eco Association, calls for a more sustainable digital policy that sees digitalisation as part of the solution to many global challenges and uses existing innovation potential more consistently than before. The Internet industry needs a strategic, long-term, binding, cross-departmental and European-synchronised political framework. Sustainable digitalisation can only succeed with sustainable digital policy that considers the innovative effects of digital innovations from the outset and integrates them into an overall regulatory concept in the long term.

2020 has been an extraordinary year in every sense of the word, and all that is negative and frightening about the Covid-19 pandemic, it has also shown us the potential of digital technologies and services if we use them decisively, responsibly and purposefully. The Internet, as well as a strong digital infrastructure, has helped us to maintain social contact in times of social distance restrictions and to do our work from the home. Entire business models have been successfully transferred from the analogue to the online world and even the topic of digital learning, which has long been criminally neglected in Germany, is inevitably currently experiencing a development that would probably have taken a multiple of years longer under other conditions. The pandemic has led to a surge in digitalisation and has also proven to those who are rather sceptical about digital transformation: Digitalisation is part of the solution to many of the challenges we will face in the coming years – with or without a pandemic – be it dealing with the climate crisis, demographic change, or the constant struggle for justice and democracy and participation around the world.

And yet today’s digital ‘construction sites’ are now also clearly recognisable
This is currently most visible in the area of digital education, which is still in its infancy in industrially advanced Germany. The fact that, even after three quarters of a year of the Covid-19 pandemic, politicians are still wavering between face-to-face teaching or extending holidays, instead of finally presenting concepts for the nationwide implementation of digital teaching and helping pupils and teachers with pragmatic solutions to technical and data protection issues, is not only irresponsible, but also shows the still glaring digital incompetence in federal and state governments in Germany.

eGovernment is also rare in Germany. That the health authorities need to work still with fax machines shows that also in the health economy much still needs to be done in terms of digital transformation.

Digital policy regresses despite digital boom during Covid-19 pandemic

It is therefore also clear: Digital transformation must be shaped politically and needs framework conditions that promote innovation, offer companies legal certainty and economic room for manoeuvre, and at the same time protect the rights of users.

Unfortunately, the German federal government has once again demonstrated in recent months that it still lacks the necessary visions for a digital society, the digital skills and, first and foremost, the political will to shape this task.

If one looks at the resolutions on the IT Security law 2.0, the new Telecommunications Act and the German Federal Intelligence Service Act (BND-Gesetz), which were rushed through in the last cabinet meeting and – in view of the ridiculously short deadlines – practically without any consultation of the industry associations and civil society, one must inevitably ask how serious the German federal government is about the goal formulated in the Digital Agenda of making Germany one of the most secure digital locations in the world. In fact, these laws damage the trustworthiness of digital communication in Germany and instead promote state surveillance and a weakening of general IT security.

Without trust in the security and integrity of the digital world, it will not be possible to tap the economic and social potential of digital transformation. The thwarting of encryption as well as the adherence to blanket data retention, which is actually inadmissible due to various European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings, also raise doubts as to whether this federal government has actually recognised the importance and, above all, the opportunities of this digital transformation.

European Council Presidency: little achieved in terms of digital policy

At the European level, too, the German federal government missed the opportunity to set an important course for a digital Europe fit for the future during its Council Presidency, which ends this month. The results are particularly disappointing with regard to the topic of sustainable digitisation, which the German federal government itself even made the focus of this year’s Digital Summit.

For example, although a consultation on the reform of the Energy Tax Directive has taken place, this development is primarily due to the work of the EU Commission. The expansion of renewable energies for sustainable digital infrastructures was also not the focus of the German EU Council Presidency and Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze. On the one hand, there is the declared goal of climate-neutral data centres by 2030, on the other hand, an adherence to phasing out coal in Germany only by 2038.  Unfortunately, this approach is symptomatic of the inconsistent and unsustainable digital policy in Germany.

It’s clear: Due to the CO2 savings potential, accelerated digitalisation not only contributes to environmental and climate protection, but also makes a significant contribution to achieving climate targets. A digital policy oriented towards sustainability principles would consider such effects of digital innovations from the outset and integrate them into an overall regulatory concept in the long term, instead of merely establishing rules on CO2 savings in data centres in the short term.

So in many ways, 2020 was more of a digital policy regression, which is particularly unfortunate given the digital resurgence we’ve seen in many areas.

Outlook 2021: Hope for reorientation of digital policy by new German federal government

But 2021 raises hopes that, with a new federal government elected in September, there could also be a realignment of digital policy in Germany. And now is the time to define strategically relevant issues and goals for the subsequent election programmes. Our demand: Digital policy must be moved from being a niche topic in federal policy to the centre and focus of any new federal government.

A digital ministry was already demanded by eco before the last federal election – it is absolutely overdue for the next legislative period. Fortunately, most parties have now come to this conclusion. The past three years of digital policy have shown that a central department is needed to pull the threads together and keep an eye on the broad lines of the digital agenda. This is the only way to prevent the wrangling over competences and the inconsistency of recent years in the area of digital policy. In order to be able to do so, this department, of course, needs sufficient funding and the necessary competencies, which may also require an adjustment of the current processes and rules of procedure within the German federal government.

European solutions instead of a patchwork of national legislations

At the European level, digital policy debates in the coming year are likely to focus in particular on the design of the major legislative package recently presented by the EU Commission to regulate digital services (Digital Services Act) and digital markets (Digital Markets Act). Among other things, this is intended to adapt the e-commerce directive to the technical developments on the Internet over the last 20 years and to make European regulation fit for the coming years. These issues include the breeding ground for the next generation of internet services, the regulation of all digital service providers in the European market and competitiveness.

To this end, differentiated, but EU-wide uniform regulations must be established for the very different services and their various business models. In doing so, the EU Commission seems to have taken an acceptable path, which, among other things, maintains the proven liability regime and does not treat every service provider equally. The prohibition of general surveillance obligations should also continue to apply. In any case, it is important to have unambiguous definitions and clarity about who is to be subject to which regulations in the future. Simplicity, traceability and transparency will be crucial, as will a sense of proportion in the scope of obligations on ISPs, content providers and intermediaries. Particularly against the background of the sanctions and high fines envisaged. The structural change that digitalisation brings is a challenge for the entire economy. Therefore, fair competition conditions are important.

Together for the Good of the Internet

2021 holds many uncertainties, especially with regard to further pandemic developments. This makes it all the more urgent that we develop a clear, long-term roadmap for how we will deal with this and other disruptive developments in our environment and our society in the future. Digitalisation will continue to offer us effective and powerful solutions in the future. It is up to us to use them in such a way that as many people as possible can benefit from these solutions.

We must come to think of challenges holistically and develop joint solutions that benefit society, the economy and Germany as a digital location. A blueprint for jointly tackling global challenges is the European infrastructure project GAIA-X, which was successfully launched this year with the support of the eco Association. It shows how much we can achieve when society, industry and politics work together.

Another beacon for successful cooperation between the state and business in the digital sector is the eco Complaints Office, whose 25th anniversary we are celebrating this year. The birthday motto is “Together for the Good of the Internet” – a slogan that would also make a good headline for the digital policy year 2021.

Digital Policy Annual Outlook 2021: Sustainable Digitalisation Can Only Succeed With Sustainable Digital Policy