Press  »  Online Activists Take On Germany's Political Mainstream.

Rosenbach, Marcel and Hilmar Schmundt. Online Activists Take On Germany's Political Mainstream. Spiegel. August 7, 2009, No. 32/2009.

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.

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?

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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Professor Hendrik Speck. 2007.

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