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

As Germany heads into national elections, established political parties are trying to appeal to Web-savvy voters using Facebook and Twitter. But their Internet policies are alienating bloggers and activists, who are using the medium to protest against the political mainstream.

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Green Party politician Matthias Güldner, 38, isn't exactly a household name in Germany. Or rather he wasn't, until last week.

But then Güldner, who is floor leader for the Greens in the parliament of the northern city-state of Bremen, published an opinion piece in the conservative daily Die Welt in which he sharply criticized what he called the "unbearable lightness of the Internet." In doing so, he clashed with his own party, which holds the position that things cannot be liberal enough on the Web. He raged against the "glorification of the Internet" and, in a reference to the micro-blogging Web site Twitter, fumed that some of his fellow party members have apparently "twittered their brains away," judging by how little concern they apparently have for the limits of law and decency.

The bone of contention between Güldner and the Greens is that he favors the blocking of child pornography Web sites as laid down in Germany's new "access restriction law," which was pushed through the Bundestag in June by Germany's grand coalition government of center-left Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats, who hold a majority in the German parliament. Güldner's position puts him on a collision course with his party's official policy, whose current campaign platform includes the slogan: "A Green vote is a vote for a free Internet."

If it weren't for the upcoming parliamentary election in just under two months' time on Sept. 27, the provincial politician's comments would probably have gone largely unnoticed. Instead, his words triggered a prompt and strong reaction last week, in the form of a reprimand from Berlin. On the day the opinion piece was published, the Green Party's national committee issued a terse statement noting that the Bremen politician's "individual opinion" contradicts the party line "in an unacceptable way." In remarks published -- appropriately enough -- on Twitter, the national committee of the party's youth wing also called Güldner's comments "defamatory" and "populist."

Digital Divide

Not too long ago, this much excitement over Internet censorship and sites like Twitter would have been unthinkable. Internet policy was considered a secondary matter in Germany, a modest technological issue with which politicians could neither further their careers nor impress voters.

But things are different in this year's campaign. For the first time, the Internet is playing an important role. That's partly because German politicians are embracing the Web as a communication medium like never before. The two main candidates for chancellor, the CDU's Angela Merkel and the SPD's Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as well as a growing number of members of parliament, have taken to blogging, twittering and podcasting in an effort to imitate the successful Internet campaign of US President Barack Obama.

In addition, as the parliamentary election campaign begins, issues relating to the Internet have become hotly discussed topics. And these issues, which include such questions as what ought to be permitted in the digital world and what limits should be imposed on Internet freedom, are posing tough challenges for the established parties.

The Greens are divided over the issue, but so is the SPD. It has become clear that the political landscape is split by a digital trench. On one side of the divide are those who see the Internet as the haunt of terrorists and child molesters, and who are calling for more control. And on the other side are those who value the Web as part of their personal freedom. They view it as an environment in which they can feel completely at ease when it comes to organizing their lives, work, friendships and romance online. And for them, the Internet is also a place of protest.

To anyone who visits the sites of political lobbyists in the German blogosphere, sites like netzpolitik.org or odem.org, it is clear that Internet activists are on the warpath against the established parties, a group which for many now includes the traditionally anti-establishment Greens. "They'll soon be wishing we were apolitical," one of their slogans reads.

Sparking a Protest Movement

Another novel aspect of this year's campaign is that the party strategists at campaign headquarters are starting to take Internet users, long ridiculed as nerds, seriously. When strategists at SPD headquarters in Berlin, for example, embarked on a large-scale effort to incorporate Facebook and Twitter into their campaign, they were horrified by the reactions they encountered, which ranged from malice to open rejection and sheer hate.

Ironically, it was the SPD/CDU grand coalition government who, with their zealous efforts to regulate and monitor the Web more strictly, helped launch the new protest movements by German Internet users. For such "netizens," government initiatives like data retention by telecommunications companies, online monitoring of the computers of suspected criminals by the authorities and biometric identification cards are nothing short of assaults on their much-valued freedoms.

But then came the spark that ignited a mixture of discontent and incomprehension, in the form of a move by Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen to restrict access to Web sites that depict child pornography. Within the German Internet community, von der Leyen's law is considered, from a technical viewpoint, to be completely unsuitable for effectively curbing child pornography. In fact, many activists see it as the first step toward far more comprehensive Internet censorship.

Since then, the line of communication between the major parties and the netizens appears to have been severed. The once-fragmented Internet protest movement is becoming organized, as evidenced by the resounding success of the Pirate Party, which was founded in 2006. The growing movement is exploring new ways to make its voice heard, including online petitions. A petition against von der Leyen's Internet controls, for example, quickly attracted 134,000 signatures.

Offline Politicians

The movement that is taking shape could be described as a kind of extra-parliamentary opposition. For Hendrik Speck, a professor of digital media in the southwestern city of Kaiserslautern, this comes as no surprise. "The central issues of the knowledge society are currently being renegotiated, but those doing the negotiating are 'offline' politicians who get other people to print out their emails for them," says Speck. "Those who work with the Internet every day, who have grown up with the Net, have no lobby in Germany."

The problem stems in part from generational conflict. Speck, who is 36, is sitting in the hipster café St. Oberholz in Berlin's fashionable Mitte district. A look around the room is all it takes to understand what he means. The patrons crowded around the tables, sitting behind their Apple laptops, are all aged between 20 and their late 30s. They are having conversations, reading newspapers and writing business plans -- and doing it all online. The free Internet is part of their habitat, one in which they are constantly communicating and networking with people around the world. The only connection that isn't functioning clearly is between these café patrons and Germany's political parties.

And that's a strategic problem for the parties. Netizens are primarily young and well-educated. Many are, due to their blogs and Twitter presence, influencers and trendsetters, with some star bloggers even being opinion leaders within their medium. The Internet also offers tremendous potential for politicians. There are now more than 40 million Internet users and 21 million video gamers in Germany, out of a population of 82 million. Are the major parties losing touch with an entire generation?

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