Revenge of the Netizens: Online Activists Take On Germany's Political Mainstream

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Part 2: The Rise of the Pirates

The alternative already exists -- and goes by the somewhat ridiculous name of the Pirate Party. The colorful group, which advocates a free and unregulated Internet, captured 0.9 percent of German votes in the European elections in June and is fielding candidates for the German parliamentary election in 15 states. This is particularly worrisome for the Green Party, which sees the Pirate Party poaching on its turf.

This helps to explain the sharp reaction coming from Green Party leaders in Berlin to Bremen politician Matthias Güldner's critique of the Internet, which brings back memories of their party's own history. Three decades ago, the anti-nuclear and environmental movements began organizing into increasingly powerful groups that no longer felt represented by the established parties. Today's Green Party arose out of that milieu.

Younger members of the Social Democrats, who are currently doing badly in the polls, are similarly alarmed. While party chairman Franz Müntefering jokes about the fact that he still uses a portable typewriter, younger SPD politicians like Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel and Björn Böhning see their party's approval of blocking Internet content as a serious mistake -- particularly as they know all too well that the restrictions are relatively ineffective because they can easily be circumvented.

The criticism coming from Böhning and Schäfer-Gümbel is a somewhat helpless attempt to reverse anti-SPD sentiments on the Internet. Even the Internet advisory committee which the SPD set up several years ago and staffed with prominent German bloggers like Sascha Lobo has largely distanced itself from the party. Nine members of the board, including Lobo, have resigned to protest the SPD's support for Internet restrictions. "The SPD is in the process of making itself unelectable for the digital generation," the nine members wrote in a statement. "This will have an effect in the Bundestag election, because the decision to block Web sites reduces any Internet election campaign to absurdity." The statement is a PR disaster for the party in a campaign year.

This is less of a problem for the conservative Christian Democrats, because the party has little chance of appealing to Internet activists anyway. Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen -- both CDU members -- are associated within the Internet community with online surveillance of criminals and blocking Web sites. As a result, images of the two politicians have appeared on thousands of Web sites, next to slogans like "Stasi 2.0" (a reference to the East German secret police) and "Zensursula," a play on the German word for censorship and von der Leyen's first name.

Even the party that considers itself the most liberal of all the major parties, the Free Democratic Party, shouldn't be getting its hopes up. The hard core of the Internet community resents the FDP because legislation enacted in 1998 that allowed the police to conduct electronic surveillance in private homes was approved when the FDP was part of a coalition government.

A Reluctant Hero

The example of Franziska Heine, who became something of a figurehead for the Internet movement almost overnight, demonstrate how painful the loss of Internet activists must be for the parties. Heine is behind the petition against the access restriction law. Within days, the movement had acquired 50,000 signatures online. Never before in postwar German history had a petition been so successful in such a short amount of time.

Heine is a reluctant celebrity. A thoughtful young woman in her late 20s who dresses conservatively and works as a web designer, hers isn't exactly the profile of the digital anarchist. By coincidence, Heine had heard about a protest by the Chaos Computer Club, an influential German hacker organization. On her way to work, she stopped to see what all the commotion was about. But instead of joining in, she decided to lodge her own protest through the official channels -- online, of course. She drafted a short letter, which two friends helped her edit while chatting online, and, with a click of the mouse, submitted it to the Bundestag's petition Web site.

"I was only putting into words what all of my friends were already thinking," she says, "namely that it isn't right to make the Internet and Internet users political targets."

Some established politicians see a greater threat in petitioners like Heine than in the Pirate Party. While they remain stuck in the classic organizational structure of a political party, complete with membership applications and national conventions, mass mobilizations like Heine's are far more dynamic and have more of an impact, using the Internet to advocate on behalf of the Internet.

Activists, at any rate, seem to have taken to her protest method. Heine's success has been followed by a petition against plans to include biometric photographs of children on passports, as well as a 106,000-signature petition against the high fees charged by GEMA, the German society for musical performing rights and mechanical reproduction rights. A petition against a proposed ban on violent video games reached an important threshold when it garnered 50,000 signatures, which qualified it -- and the arguments of gamers -- to be heard by the Bundestag petitions committee.

Ironically, it was the SPD-Green Party coalition government that introduced the Internet petition in 2005, partly with the goal of appealing to young voters.

For Hanover political scientist Michael Vester, it is clear that "a new generation, one that was considered apolitical until now," is making itself heard. Its representatives are generally no followers of utopian ideals, but pragmatic and levelheaded. "This is not a flash in the pan," says Vester. "The petitions are only the beginning."

Playing the Game

Markus Beckedahl agrees. His Web site netzpolitik.org is the central organ of the new movement. It is professionally designed and is currently the most-linked-to blog in Germany. In the analog world, Beckedahl would be described as a hybrid between a journalist and a lobbyist. He is one of the people who are currently helping the digital society find itself, who are explaining to it that it has interests and that it has to do something to further those interests, at least more than railing against ignorant politicians on Web forums.

"You either play the game or you leave it to others," says Beckedahl, who is by no means a representative of the radical Internet camp. His positions are well removed from those of the Chaos Computer Club, which wants to see the government take a total hands-off approach when it comes to the digital world. The 32-year-old wanted to major in political science with an emphasis on Internet policy, until he realized that this was not a program offered by any German university. Now he is simply pursuing it himself.

What should the parties do differently to win over Beckedahl's readers? "We need more Internet expertise from politicians and parties, as well as in the government," says Beckedahl. He wants to see the establishment of "a separate Internet ministry" so that the subject "finally gets competent representation in the cabinet."

Former US President Bill Clinton made the issue a priority 10 years ago, and current President Barack Obama is extremely Internet-savvy. Germany's leading politicians, on the other hand, have a lot of catching up to do.

When SPD candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented his shadow cabinet last week as part of his bid to become chancellor, it included Hubertus Heil as his expert for new media. But Heil doesn't exactly enjoy the reputation of an expert within the Internet community. Heil had barely been named as Internet czar when the first blogs began deriding Steinmeier's choice as a "stopgap solution."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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