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New Germany’s digital foreign policy strategy: Between continuity and change

Published on 13 February 2024
Updated on 19 March 2024

Digital is a strategic priority for Germany. It is the key message of Germany’s Strategy for International Digital Foreign Policy, released on February 7, 2024. Germany has joined Denmark, Switzerland, Australia, and a few other countries in outlining its digital foreign policy in a strategic document.

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The strategy follows the traditional three pillars of global governance: 

  • Human rights: protect democracy and freedom in the digital space
  • Economy: prosperity in a globalised digital economy
  • Security: sustainability and the resilience of our digital society

The German strategy emphasises digital interdependence as critical for Germany’s prosperity and export-oriented economy built around digital global supply chains.  However, critical dependencies, particularly submarine cables, pose significant strategic risks to the country. Internet fragmentation would have a significant impact on Germany’s economy and society as a whole. The strategy refers only once to digital sovereignty of the EU. There is no coverage of content governance, taxation, and blockchain issues.

In this summary analysis, we avoid mentioning traditional topics found in digital policy documents, such as capacity building, sustainability, SDGs, resilience, trust, transparency, and digital public goods.  The emphasis is on new ideas and shifts in the focus on digital policy issues.

1. Data: the interplay between trade, privacy, and security

Data remains the key dimension of German digital policy. Overall, the strategy puts more weight on security than the previous major interplay between trade and privacy relevance of data policies.

Germany calls for an international agreement on a free flow of data. The new strategy indicates a few important shifts from the country’s main focus on the data nexus between trade and privacy protection. Security aspects of data governance are gaining momentum.

Germany is also putting a heavier focus on G7 and G20 processes compared to WTO (trade and data) and the human rights system (privacy protection and data). 

A new element is a stronger emphasis on implementing policies and regulations via the involvement of national data protection authorities. 

2. AI: Low prominence

AI has a low profile in the strategy compared to the high presence of AI issues in public debates. It is mentioned in only two paragraphs. The strategy also mentions the AI-driven market concentration, often overlooked in discussions on dealing with AI risks. A potential reason for the low visibility of AI in the Strategy could be that Germany considers AI separate from digital issues. It remains to be clarified.

3. Inclusion paradox: More possibilities – Less participation in digital governance

‘We want to avoid duplicate structures, which make broad-based and inclusive participation of stakeholders in international bodies harder’. (see)

At first glance, this is an ordinary sentence, but it is the gist of one of the main challenges for inclusive digital governance. Namely, there is growing pressure to create new bodies and mechanisms dealing particularly with AI. At the same time, many actors, including the biggest countries, cannot meaningfully follow even current digital governance processes.

Small developing countries, civil society, and disadvantaged groups that don’t have the money or people to take an active role in digital governance are the main ones hurt by this paradox of inclusion. So, all IOs and Member States should think twice before adding new mechanisms, especially in the AI governance field, which is growing very quickly.

The Bauhaus principle, that “form follows function”, can help us to avoid this risk. Only if the current “forms” and mechanisms aren’t working should new ones be set up. The UN High-Level Body on AI’s reference to the “Bauhaus principle” is a good sign.

4. E-commerce: No reference to WTO negotiations

The absence in the Strategy of any direct reference to WTO e-commerce negotiations and the general relevance of data flow negotiations in the WTO is surprising, as Germany has been a strong promoter of introducing data and e-commerce issues in WTO negotiations. It remains to be seen if it is just temporary fatigue or a more permanent shift away from WTO negotiations on e-commerce, which the USA made in 2023. 

5. Digital standards between tech and values

Germany wants to increase its presence in international standardisation bodies. It is not surprising as Germany relies heavily on standards, especially in the context of its leading role in digital manufacturing and the automation of industrial processes. 

The strategy makes a major shift from the purely technical aspect of standardisation via a call for respect of fundamental rights in standardisation processes. The question of values is further emphasised in reference to  ‘us’ and ‘others’ in the standardisation process. 

Standardisation will be in the nexus of tension between industrial digitalisation, where Germany leads, and societal digitalisation, where the country can face most policy tensions with other countries around, among others, freedom of expression, privacy protection, and ethics of AI.

While the strategy echoes the call for more inclusion of developing countries in digital standardisation, one has to be realistic about the relatively low development priority of standardisation compared to internet access, affordable internet, and digital skills, to name a few central issues for digital inclusion. In carrying out the strategy, Germany should look for innovative approaches to standardisation inclusion that reflect the priorities and capacities of small and developing countries.

6. Infrastructure: The return of geography

The strategy anchors digital in geographical space, from the seabed and terrestrial cables to our space. While the German strategy strongly supports digital interdependence, it introduces the concept of geo-redundancy and the avoidance of critical dependencies on digital infrastructure. Submarine and terrestrial cables are the main elements of critical dependencies. The strategy has a special paragraph dedicated to the digital relevance of outer space

7. China: A few contextual references

China is not explicitly mentioned in the strategy. However, there are a few paragraphs that relate to digital issues of high relevance in relations between Germany and China, such as leakage and the dual-use of technology. Digital issues are important in the overall German strategy for relations with China.

8. Net neutrality: An old principle in a new context

Net neutrality has been some time away from the policy focus. After years of absence, net neutrality was mentioned in the German Strategy. It remains to be seen how it will be implemented practically, especially with the shift of ownership of cables and digital infrastructure from telecom to internet companies.

The Germany Strategy for Digital Foreign Policy puts into one document a wide range of policies and initiatives that Germany has been developing in the digital realm. The implementation of the strategy will face the following major challenges:

  • reconciling the tension between values and interest in digital foreign policy, including making delicate trade-offs 
  • dealing with industrial and citizen digitalisation, especially in the field of standardisation
  • outlining policies for missing issues in the Strategy including content governance, taxation, multilingualism, Internet of Things, Metaverse, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, etc.  
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