Net Politics: Report Calls for German Internet Commissioner

A commission convened by Germany's parliament believes the Internet should be given a greater political priority in the country. Zoom
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A commission convened by Germany's parliament believes the Internet should be given a greater political priority in the country.

A special Internet and Digital Society Commission convened by parliament has released several hundred recommendations for addressing data protection and other Internet-related issues in Germany. Chief among them: establishing a permanent Internet commissioner.

In a country where Internet privacy can often be a major political issue, the recommendations came as little surprise. A special commission set up by Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, submitted its final report Thursday evening, recommending that the German government get more serious about Internet-related issues and even establish the office a permanent Internet commissioner.

The 1,300-page report was drafted over three years by an Internet and Digital Society Commission made up of 17 parliamentarians and 17 experts from outside parliament. The main recommendations among several hundred were to solidly anchor Internet-related policies as a dedicated committee within the Bundestag -- similar to other bodies like the foreign affairs or budget committee -- and to create a related minister of state position, such as those that the government already has for federal-state coordination, migration, refugees and integration, and culture and media.

Among other major recommendations were reforming copyright laws, strengthening infrastructure against online attacks and expanding broadband access.

"The most important thing is that the Internet inquiry was there at all," Axel Fischer, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who chaired the commission, told the German news agency DPA. "We should know and acknowledge that the subject is relevant -- and keep at it."

Growing Importance in Germany

The issues handled by the commission are of particular importance in Germany, where matters related to online privacy and the power of computer-related companies are very present in voters' minds. The online giant Google has been repeatedly criticized for violating privacy rights with products such as its Street View application, and data-protection authorities have sparred with Facebook on issues such as requiring users to use their real names.

Last February, thousands of protesters gathered in more than 50 German cities to demonstrate against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a multinational treaty that aims to help the music and film industries combat Internet piracy and intellectual property theft.

Interests in related topics even gave rise to Germany's Pirate Party, which has scored a number of impressive state elections results in recent years and rocked the political landscape in early 2012 by seizing 13 percent of the vote in an opinion poll. Since then, however, internal bickering, leadership issues and a series of scandals have caused its support to nosedive to a paltry 3 percent, according to a recent poll. A party requires 5 percent of the vote in order to gain seats in parliament in Germany.

In terms of government architecture, related issues are currently under the aegis of the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (FtDF). The agency, which is under the supervision of Germany's Interior Ministry, monitors data protection and data access in both the private and public spheres.

A number of non-EU countries, such as Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Israel and Taiwan, have "information commissions, "privacy commissioners" or "data protection commissioners" with similar duties. Data protection at the EU level is handled by the Commissioner of Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, which is currently pushing the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to supersede its Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and cover more issues dealing with social networks, cloud computing, data protection and privacy. Likewise, all 27 EU member states have offices responsible for related issues.

Where Now?

Despite the strong voice of the recommendations, there were reportedly still rifts within the commission. Alvar Freude, an expert appointed to the commission by the center-left Social Democrats, told DPA that party divisions led some recommendations to be excluded and for the final report to include a number of "dissenting opinions" from commission members representing opposition parties.

Indeed, these parties have already expressed frustration over the report. Halina Wawzyniak, a parliamentarian for the far-left Left Party, complained that the recommendations "could have absolutely been bolder" and that only recommendations that can later flow into concrete legislative proposals were delivered. Thomas Jarzombek, a commission member from the CDU, countered charges of excessive partisanship, noting that a number of lawmakers from his party have become more open to Internet issues and that "a whole lot of persuading work" had been done over the last three years.

Although the commission's description of the situation has garnered unanimous praise, there has also been much criticism, primary from opposition parties, about the report's lack of common guidelines or directives for moving forward. "A lot of fundamental issues still remain," said Brigitte Zypries, an SPD parliamentarian who was Germany's justice minister between 2002 and 2009.

Other comments were more forceful. "The end of the commission of inquiry is not the end of Internet policies in the Bundestag, it must be the beginning," Konstantin von Notz, a commission member and parliamentarian for the Green Party, told DPA.

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