• The German general election 2017

Brief party manifesto analysis | Digital Policies

All German election manifestos highlight the relevance of digital products and services that restructure the way we live and work. No longer a mere IT matter, digitalisation affects every political area. Following a period of technical dominance, questions of societal acceptance and political agenda-setting are becoming more important. As a consequence, the majority of manifestos provide ideas and goals for future digital policies: From infrastructure, public administration, digital education, culture and media to questions about sustainability, data protection and information security. The following analysis offers an overview.

Common ground in digital policies
All political election manifestos agree that it is time to discuss and shape restructuring processes that have been triggered by the digital revolution. Naturally, core issues and overarching ideas differ. The Conservatives (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) keep an eye on how digitalisation may best be used. The two governing parties discuss ways to secure the quality of life (CDU), social justice and risk management (SPD). Following a lengthy period of political insignificance, the Liberal Democrats (FDP) are focusing on digital opportunities for the economic sector.

Political responsibilities
Depending on the election outcome, controversies may arise over the allocation of digital responsibilities. While the FDP is the only German party calling for a proper Digital Office, the Conservatives plan to hand over digital coordination to the Federal Chancellery. Moreover, the governing CDU intends to establish a ‚national digital committee‘ to promote the exchange between politicians as well as national and international digital experts. The Social Democrats seem to be undecided. They allude to a plan for a dedicated commission set to organise a fundamental digital debate, thus obtaining concrete recommendations on how to combine digital support for economic and societal concerns.

Regulation in the digital age
The current legislative period has yielded a novel digital legislation. This is widely viewed as evidence that German politics is getting ready to regulate the digital industry more profoundly than in the past. The Social Democrats intend to increase regulation in areas such as data processing, media, copyright and antitrust legislation as well as anti-discrimination. Far-reaching regulation could be in the offing, provided the SPD continues to govern. In some instances, the plans of the SPD are similar to those of the Green and Left political spectrum, including the FDP. Germany’s FDP is the only party explicitly demanding a novel framework for digital venture capital to support innovative corporate financing.

Data protection – what’s to come?
Across the parties, managing innovative technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) whilst ensuring data protection is paramount. This includes data use for commercial as well as research purposes. The governing coalition’s position on the issue underwent some changes during the past legislative period. Sceptical at first, the CDU and the SPD came to acknowledge the economic potential of data. The two parties now seek to combine harvesting opportunities while putting in place appropriate protective regulation. The SPD focuses on data sovereignty, transparency and a wider societal debate with regard to the Digital Charter – to be supplemented by negotiated and legislative agreements that soften the more difficult consequences of the digital revolution. While the Conservatives plan a ‚Data Act‘ that will provide data access rules for economic purposes, the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats introduces a plan to restore the right of self-determination with regard to intelligence and data. Unanimously, German political parties are cautious when it comes to extensive data collection and increasingly powerful internet companies.

Views on digital policies in the European Union
Even though the governing Conservatives and Lib Dems want to protect the German economy (e.g. via merger control), most of the major parties are looking towards the EU. With regard to industry politics, the CDU plans to take advantage of the close relationship between Berlin and Paris. Closely following a cooperation à la Airbus, the party advocates joint AI research and promotes European platforms for digital health and mobility. EU matters also play a part in the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats. The FDP is in favour of a European digital single market with no barriers – a position also taken by the Green Party. This ties in with demands voiced by German companies for a European data protection guideline, as well as the creation of a European data pool to strengthen Europe’s digital hand vis -à-vis the US platform economy.

Intersections and distinctions
All parties plan to expand the country’s digital infrastructure, including novel ideas for intelligent transportation. This implicates an investment in digital education and a more efficient E-Administration, developing network neutrality for a level playing field. Disputes are expected to arise over the extent of future data protection regulation. The Social Democrats differ markedly from the Lib Dems in areas such as health, agriculture, mobility and future working conditions. In terms of the latter, the FDP advocates a further loosening of labour laws and supports the sharing economy (surely good news for Uber et al.). The SPD favours job training and a close collaboration between legislative frameworks, labour agreements and operational configurations.

Now is the time to define clear responsibilities and jurisdictions. Given the pace of technological advancement, political room for manoeuvre is at stake. Individual interests must be avoided for the benefit of an all-encompassing digital strategy. It remains to be seen if the fundamental aspects of the digital revolution will be decided upon as clearly and decisively as needed. When viewing the party manifestos and the dynamics of the underlying technologies, it seems fair to assume that a ‚one step at a time‘ approach will govern Germany in the coming four years. Regardless of the election outcome, general goals and responsibilities have to be defined. In addition to that, processes at the beginning of the legislation need to be adapted whilst governing.

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