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Why Germany needs a “Minister For Digital Affairs”

Much more than just a fad or a hype, internet and the digital lives have become a vital constituent of the daily routine of a person. Its invention and further development revolutionized the world in every major aspect. Finance, business, transportation, education, industry, the way the economy grows, the way the State works, even the way we socialize and interact with other people, everything has been touched by this technology and directly or indirectly experienced improvements. However, the state politics seem to not have yet materialized the utter importance of this field on the organizational structure of governments and its crucial role on the development of the economy, the society and the way the state works.

Everything points for the further digitization of the economy, with concepts such Internet of Things, Smart Cities, Autonomous Driving, Sharing Economy, Big Data, Crowdfunding and Artificial Intelligence becoming more present on the political agendas. Isn’t it time to have a specific portion of a government solely focused on working and dealing with the digital affairs? It is important to ask such a question specially when we are bombarded with news regarding the digitization of services, the hacking of services and the threat to privacy that people are experience whilst using online platforms.

A Minister for the Digital Affairs on the Neighborhood

Nominating a Minister for the Digital Affairs isn’t a breakthrough advancement in the world of politics, and we don’t have to travel much far to get to know a successful case of such nomination. There are already states which have a specific ministry on the governments’ cabinet dedicated to the Digital Affairs in the European Union. Poland has its own very Ministry of Digital Affairs, which is charged with one of the main ambitious state digitation strategy plans in the world. The polish government aims to transform the paradigm of state-dealing by implementing advanced e-government solutions, e-services, a coordinated strategy on the digital space with the main objective of turning Poland into an advanced player on the field of the digital affairs. On this department, established on December of 2015, we can find sub-departments for Cyber Security, National Records, IT infrastructure, Telecommunication, Information Society among other operational ones, all working toward the common goal of developing the broadband infrastructure, support the creation of web content and e-services and promote digital competencies among citizens. It is based on a 20-page Strategic Action Plan with 5 pillars and 18 action points, and it allows now for example that every polish entity, being it an individual, organization or entrepreneur, can settle any official matter electronically. With this strategic plan, the polish government aims to provide a smoother, faster and more citizen friendly approximation to satisfying the needs of its citizens, entrepreneurs, organizations and the local governments as well, eliminating a big part of burocracy, which ultimately fosters the creation of dynamic processes that improve the overall functioning of the state. Even Digital Currencies are being tested under the CoinDesk program, taking advantage of the last developments on the blockchain technology.

In 2016, in a country with 65,1% of its citizens using internet daily and being Europe’s biggest economy, Germany does not have an ambitious strategic plan. In fact, it isn’t something quite new. Merkel’s 2013 claim about internet being “a virgin territory” for her is somehow symptomatic of the lack of vision for what the world be like in, say, 10 or even 5 years for the current German administration. The Digital Agenda 2014–2017, an ambitious but late program which objective was to transform the country into a “worldwide leader in expanding high-speed data lines, internet security and fostering cyber-related entrepreneurship", isn’t meeting the expectations created. According to the Net Policy Barometer, 60% of the goals haven’t been implemented yet, with major flaws specially in the areas of data protection, infrastructure and copyright law reform, despite advancement in some important matters. In fact, 16% of the measures haven’t still been touched yet. The digital infrastructure still needs to be implemented in the totality of the country’s territory and even if successful, the goal of implementing a 50 mb/s network on all of the territory on 2018 is short as a whole strategy. More needs to be done, with more efficiency, more coordination and more transparency about concrete measures to be taken.

The amount of challenges and difficulties present by the innovational breakthroughs that we see on the news is on the rise. Current legislation fails to correspond to new paradigms brought by innovative platforms that disrupt sectors such as transportation (see the controversy around Uber and other similar services). The protection of personal data is one of the most difficult challenges to address specially when everything that surrounds us has the potential to be linked (Internet of Things). There are numerous reports of security flaws exploited by hackers that leak and sell enormous databases consisting of sensible personal data of millions of users, exposing addresses, contacts and even bank account data. Webcams can be easily cracked and used as spy tools to monitor random citizens, destroying privacy and exposing intimacy. Cars with autonomous driving system can be vulnerable targets to malicious intents. There is a colossal amount of challenges in an area where there is no sufficient response and this must be judged as a fundamental discussion to have that needs a primary role on any government in a developed country. Right now the digital affairs are dealt with by three different figures, being the minister of Economy (Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD), the ministry of the Interior (Thomas de Maizière of the CDU) and the Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (Alexander Dobrindt of the CSU). This is certainly one cause for the inertia and the lack of efficiency in the decision making process in the digital field, because satisfying three political agendas is pretty much a difficult task to handle, let alone being in such a crucial stage on the verge of an election year.

The benefits of having a single unit at a superior level in a government would add more fluidity to the process of policy making, fostering the cooperation between all the ministries as there would be less political friction to gather initiative in the first place, making it much easier to come upon with new measures to address the new challenges that surge on a regular basis and that need a strong capacity of response.

A Ministry for the Digital Affairs would have a transversal role in a government team. Not only would it be in charge of the implementation and supervision of the digital infrastructure, as it would be responsible as well for the cyber security of the digital assets of the country, whose importance gets bigger by the day. States must develop a clear strategy against cybercrime and cyberterrorism, which can have severe consequences in the normal functioning of the State affairs. The development of the Industry 4.0, which aims to be the future paradigm of the manufacturing with the rise of the so called smart factories and the complete automation of processes, will require further legislation and amplified assistance that the State isn’t yet ready to handle. By working in cooperation with other departments, new solutions could be implemented to motivate progress in areas such as the environmental protection and social inclusion, promoting development and equity of all the regions of Germany. The creation of a public digital platform consisting of big data must be projected and it is unacceptable that a country such as Germany which aims to be in the vanguard of technology and digitization does not provide its citizen an open platform with access to such data.

It is fundamental to build an ambitious yet realistic strategy to drive digital development and subsequent maturity, with a clear scope and well defined objectives. Also, this digital revolution must come from the top, and so the example must be given by a Ministry to signal to the rest of the quadrants of the society.

Lack of political will to go further

The latest crushing defeat for CDU on the regional election of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the decline of vote intentions in the last year, punishing the migratory polices of Chancellor Merkel, signal that changes might occur with the 2017 Federal Elections. However, not much is spoken about the digital agenda. We know that 2017 is the last year of the 2014–2017 plan and we expect to see new goals being created for the next years, but being this a year of campaign with a great turmoil and focus on migratory policies, geostrategic shifts and new developments on womb of the European Union due to the Brexit, it’s unclear the priorities on the field of digitization and digital affairs. It’s unlikely that if CDU remains in government that such a ministry will be created, since the priority for the actual leader is the security and stabilization of the heat issues.

Other parties are great critics of what’s (not) being done as well, with a primary focus on the protection of individual data on the internet. Die Linke, for example, still sees the Revolution 4.0 as a big threat to the works and fears that the implementation of more network-based jobs can contribute to a rise of the precarity and decrease of the rights of the workers. However, it is a major defendant of the protection of the individual data of the consumers and internet neutrality. The Green Party is a big critic of the politics implemented in the last 3 years and ask for more to be done on this field, especially in what come the protection of individual data and the Netzpolitik. Due to its concerns about hot issues such as the access of corporations to big data and the electronic civil rights, the creation of a minister specialized in this kind of affairs could be seen as a big leap forward.

The SPD party has a much more focused stance on the key issue of the digital agenda. Based on a 41 paged Strategic Document, it provides a comprehensive list of policies that have to be implemented in order to catch up with the innovation wave of the last years. It has a chapter dedicated only to the e-government, but there is no trace about the creation of a Ministry of Digital Affairs. However, it offers an ambitious program that includes the creation of a new ID card, online voting and a more digitalized public infrastructure.

The next year promises to be an important turning point for the German politics. With complex forces in bound and great pressure for big changes, it is a great opportunity to revamp the agenda and build a more ambitious plan to take the digitization of the country one step further. It is time to recognize the utter importance of internet and the digital affairs in the functioning of societies and the economic system and develop a more proactive approach to this new technologic wave. Germany cannot fall behind in this crucial moment of technological and social innovations, and it is imperative that it signals to the world the will to be on the frontline of technological advancement by adapting the administrative organization of its leadership, creating a high position representative for the omnipresence of the digital affairs.

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