“We should not let the digital transformation get the better of us”

The German government is working on a strategy for international digital policy – it should be in place by the end of the year. How will Germany position itself internationally, including on internet governance? A double interview with Dr Regine Grienberger from the Federal Foreign Office and Dr Irina Soeffky from the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport about their work on this.

In a few weeks, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will take place in Kyoto – the central platform for internet governance issues. Both the Federal Foreign Office (AA) and the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV) are represented here. This year, the IGF’s motto is “The Internet We Want – Empowering All People.” What kind of Internet are you advocating?

Irina Soeffky: For a free, global and decentralized internet that is open and technically interoperable. For a long time, we took this for granted. But now we are seeing worrying developments, such as the attempt by some countries to seal off their national networks. We must not resign ourselves to this, but stand up for our values internationally. And that’s why formats like the IGF are so important, where 174 countries come together to discuss with civil society, business and academia what kind of Internet we want. Everyone must contribute to an open, free internet. We want to strengthen this multi-stakeholder approach internationally.

Regine Grienberger: I would like to add that it should also be a secure internet. If you call for a secure internet, there are many reasons for that: cybercrime, for example, or disinformation and hate speech on the Net. But these arguments are also used by authoritarian states to shift more control of the internet to the states, away from civil society and technical communities. We are under no illusions: A 100 percent secure internet is a pipe dream. But this must not lead us to control the internet more tightly or even to censor it.


Dr. Soeffky, you just mentioned what is known as the Splinternet, i.e. the division of the internet according to technological, national and commercial interests. Can you imagine a situation in which even democratically constituted countries say: Now we should pull out of something?

Soeffky: No, we must not give up on the open internet. Of course, we have to respond to new threat situations, ensure security and defend against cyberattacks. We have to protect ourselves from disinformation, hatred and incitement. But the consequence of these threats must never be that we restrict free communication. There are clever mechanisms for dealing with this, such as the EU’s Digital Services Act, which our House is currently transposing into national law. At the Federal Network Agency, we are creating strong platform supervision and a central point of contact for citizens if they see their rights violated on the Net.

Grienberger: Yes, we should locate the necessary mechanisms in the multi-stakeholder approach. This means that we strive to bring together different interest groups and jointly develop solutions to problems. And that, in contrast to authoritarian states, is already a fundamentally different method. In the case of disinformation and hate speech, we simply have to hold the platforms more accountable. And cybercrime severely limits the usability of the internet for some segments of the population. That requires more international law enforcement cooperation. Overall, this is an issue that sits very well with the United Nations – which is effectively the top global governance level.


How do we make this vision a reality? And how can we ensure that all people worldwide benefit from it?

Grienberger: As Germany or even as Europeans, we are not alone. There is a very large group of so-called “like-minded” states, of like-minded people, who take a similar approach to this issue. And together with them, we are also trying to convince those who are just beginning their journey into digital transformation and also into global networking via the internet. When it comes to confronting authoritarian states, we have to present the advantages of an open internet for everyone as clearly as possible and stick to them.


And what does that mean in concrete terms for the promotion of women and girls as well as other marginalized groups, as just postulated in feminist foreign and development policy?

Grienberger: This issue is very close to my personal heart. My guiding principle is that we at the Federal Foreign Office do not act for these groups, but together with them. We are committed to enabling them to participate appropriately in the various discussion and negotiation formats. Sometimes it also means overcoming very practical hurdles – such as paying travel expenses. But it also means that states and governments should strive to put good quality content online that is valuable to users, so that women and girls, as well as marginalized groups, can also find content on the internet that interests them and that helps them. This also applies, for example, to people who belong to smaller language communities. The third element is combating gender-based violence online. Because this actually leads to women and girls in particular not using certain internet services.


Dr Soeffky, from your ministry’s perspective, how do you look at efforts to push feminist foreign and development policy on digital levels as well?

Soeffky: Regine Grienberger has already mentioned a very central element with the multi-stakeholder approach. Ultimately, it’s about empowering the stakeholders in the world as a whole and ensuring that everyone has free access to the internet at the lowest possible cost. Because minorities, women, girls and other marginalized groups in particular benefit from this. They network online, finding a safe space for exchange there, even across borders. That’s why we support initiatives such as the International Telecommunication Union’s “Partner to Connect” to improve connectivity internationally. Another example: We are currently working very hard on digital skilling – developing capabilities that enable participation – as part of the G20 Digital Ministerial Process under the Indian presidency.


In addition to the IGF, there are other institutions like ICANN and WSIS that are dedicated to internet governance. How would you two actually weight the different forums and organizations?

Soeffky: The WSIS process was the first attempt to outline a kind of global distribution of tasks. From that perspective, these are all very important organizations and formats, all with their specific roles and tasks. ICANN, for example, plays an indispensable role in making sure that our internet works on a technical level on a daily basis. Ideally, these different work processes complement each other without duplicating or conflicting.

Grienberger: From my point of view, the Internet Governance Forum is a very central forum for exchange. The rest of the processes sort themselves out a bit around it, in my observation. There is, after all, the World Summit on the Information Society; in this process, the decision on how to proceed with the Internet Governance Forum is coming up soon. ICANN, on the other hand, is a very technical forum, which is of enormous value because multi-stakeholder cooperation works well there – it’s about finding traffic rules for the internet, so to speak.

Soeffky: Many of these bodies ultimately have their common roots in the multi-stakeholder principle. The WSIS process from 2003 and the IGF from 2006 were the first comprehensive attempts by the United Nations to position itself as a coordinator within the existing structure. This idea is also followed by the Global Digital Compact, which will give us more general guidelines in the future.


Dr Grienberger, you are working specifically with the UN Tech Envoy on the Global Digital Compact. How is it shaping up to move away from the abstract?

Grienberger: The Tech Envoy came into office with the task of preparing this Global Digital Compact. He had very few resources and very little time to do that. And that was the moment when we in the Foreign Office said: This is where we should actively support him. We then organized a consultation process for him, i.e. his consultations with stakeholders in three world regions, namely in Africa, in Asia and in Latin and Central America. This resulted in written summaries of stakeholder positions. One of the findings:

The multitude of forums and formats is really a challenge for stakeholders, but also for governments, especially with partners in the so-called global south. Therefore, we Germans and Europeans need to present coherent and consistent positions in these multilateral formats and highlight the added value of this engagement.

Dr Regine Grienberger, Ambassador for Cyber Foreign and Cybersecurity Policy at the Federal Foreign Office

Another lesson is that for many countries, especially from Africa, the United Nations is actually the place they attribute the most legitimacy when it comes to finding a fair solution to take into account all the interests of developed and developing countries.


What will be the topics of the Global Digital Compact?

Grienberger: The text is still being drafted. It will take up various points that were very important in the consultations: for example, physical access to the internet. Another point, however, is access, i.e., things you can do online that will help you: Educational opportunities, job opportunities, economic opportunities and official information. Artificial intelligence will also play a major role.


And how do you intend to make the stakeholders responsible for this?

Grienberger: That’s a question we’re grappling with. Because the Compact will, in a sense, only commit governments. It will hopefully be a consensus document and therefore also be able to use the motivation of governments. However, it will not contain any instruments to oblige the private sector, for example. In other words, it must be convincing in its own right.


Dr Soeffky, the consultation process for a strategy for international digital policy has been running since this year. Why does Germany need something like this, especially with regard to foreign policy and development cooperation?

Soeffky: We have indeed started a very extensive stakeholder process, both nationally and internationally, with many discussions with very different players. There is a great consensus here that such a strategy is needed: The internet works globally, it offers endless opportunities. But we must work together to ensure that everyone really benefits from it. And by that I mean within our society, but also globally. The international digital strategy is intended to become a compass for the entire German government so that it can act more coherently and effectively on digital issues internationally. We want to make Germany a strong voice for the free internet in international digital policy. To achieve this, we need to pull together even more within the government, act in a coordinated manner and set clear priorities.


What would be your most important priority?

Soeffky: We want to preserve the free internet as we know it and as we have just described it with many adjectives. This will only succeed if we defend and further develop the multi-stakeholder approach.

We want the strategy to provide long-term orientation – even beyond the next technology hype.

Dr Irina Soeffky, Director for National, European and International Digital Policy at the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport

Grienberger: From my point of view, the international digital political strategy is a means of getting all the departments involved in it out of their comfort zone. For the digital ministry, certainly the national sphere, where they could act as legislators, is more comfortable than the international one. And for us and the Ministry of Development, it’s the other way around. So I would say: We meet outside our respective comfort zones and try to turn digital policy, international tasks in digital policy, then digital development policy and digital foreign policy or digital diplomacy into a joint international digital strategy for the German government. My goal is to use this strategy as the basis for Germany’s own, coherent and effective external presence.


There is a buzzword that you both mentioned again and again, and which runs like a thread through our conversation: “multi-stakeholder.” How do you ensure in your two ministries that these stakeholders from business, civil society and science actually manage to bring their perspectives to bear on the strategy?

Soeffky: As already explained, we started a very extensive and open consultation process. We tried to reach as many as possible and enable as many as possible to participate.


And this broad involvement of different perspectives will not break off at some point?

Soeffky: On the contrary. At the end of the year, the strategy for international digital policy is to be adopted by the cabinet. Until then and beyond, we want to continue the exchange with stakeholders and countries on an ongoing basis.

Grienberger: We will continue this consultation and look very closely at the comments and incorporate them into our further work. The truth is, of course, that we will receive many, also divergent, comments and that in the end, of course, the cabinet will decide. Therefore, this will not be an endless, open process of discourse, but there will of course be a decision by the federal cabinet at some point. Then we will have to make certain compromises. Certainly, not all positions will be able to be reflected in the form intended by some players. But we will ensure that they are included.


Dr Grienberger, you advocate better foreign policy through digital support. What does that mean in concrete terms?

Grienberger: Digital foreign policy has two dimensions. One is the internal one: How do we as diplomats work with digitization and with digital means? And the second is the external dimension, i.e. digitization as a topic in the dialogs and activities that we have in bilateral or multilateral formats. Why does digitization lead to better foreign policy? On the one hand, there is the issue of knowledge management: We have 225 foreign missions and a relatively large headquarters, which we need to network with each other. We could synchronize our digital tools much better. Another example: Of course, we also simply have a shortage of human resources. And one thing that can help is to automate and digitize processes and get away from paper. And thirdly:

In a foreign policy situation that is becoming increasingly complex and where new elements have to be taken into account, such as climate change, we need to strengthen our ability to make fact-based decisions. That is, that we are able to analyze a large amount of data, including data that we produce ourselves.

Dr Regine Grienberger, Ambassador for Cyber Foreign and Cybersecurity Policy at the Federal Foreign Office

What does that look like in concrete terms?

Grienberger: For example, we have a department that deals with humanitarian aid. And humanitarian aid is, of course, by definition an instrument that often comes late, namely when damage has already been done. That’s why we have a project called anticipatory humanitarian aid. The aim is to act earlier in the event of natural disasters, for example, to start providing aid before a hurricane makes landfall. Because we know that anticipatory humanitarian aid is up to seven times more effective than if the same funds are only used after the disaster has occurred. . But, of course, that means you have to build programming differently. To do that, we now use forecasting based on Big Data analysis using an AI tool.


Can you say something about the targeting accuracy of artificial intelligence in your preventive humanitarian aid?

Grienberger: The project is at the beginning. There have definitely been reservations. But it is convincing because it is easy to use and because it opens up options for action – options that we would not have thought of ourselves. Of course, the algorithm is much less influenced by personal experience and preferences, which can otherwise play a major role in political decisions, which are often gut decisions. When making decisions, people often make thinking errors, because what cannot be cannot be. And of course, an algorithm doesn’t care about that, it still throws out this scenario.


What role does development cooperation play, particularly with regard to digitization as a global undertaking?

Grienberger: I often find that it helps partners to be offered concrete help for concrete problems in addition to political messages. We should be able to convince our partners; we are in competition with other systems and must therefore also make an effort not just to stick to words, but also to follow up with actions. And on the other hand, it is important that we also reflect development cooperation internally: The example of administrative digitization is all the more convincing if we apply this recipe to ourselves as well.

Soeffky: Thinking in silos is not helpful anywhere – and certainly not in the federal administration. One example: I originally come from the Federal Ministry of Economics, where foreign economic policy is also made. But the BMZ, too, has of course long recognized that companies are important for cooperation with partners in the global South. Ideally, the various policy instruments should mesh seamlessly.


If you take a look into the future – what does the digital world have to look like in ten years’ time so that you can say, “The strategy was successful – and for Germany, for foreign policy and for development cooperation?”

Grienberger: For me, it’s a tactical and strategic goal that there will still be an internet Governance Forum in ten years’ time, which will find even greater acceptance among all stakeholders than it has in the past; especially also among those states that are perhaps just getting started with it now. A second element would be that we continue to reduce the number of people who are not connected to the internet, while at the same time being on track to also consider climate friendliness in the expansion of the internet. The third is: I would like to see the buzzword of the “international law of the net,” i.e., the rules of the game for the internet, become more entrenched and that we will have contained some of the biggest problems, especially in the area of cybercrime, by then.

Soeffky: I can only agree with Regine Grienberger, especially on the Internet Governance Forum. Of course, this goes hand in hand with preserving and strengthening the multi-stakeholder approach. I would like to see Germany acting as an active and important player in digital policy and helping to ensure that we jointly find a good way of dealing with new technologies – that we emphasize the opportunities without ignoring the risks.

We should not let the digital transformation wash over us and tacitly accept what is happening in other regions of the world. We should have the ambition to help shape digitization worldwide and fight for values such as freedom, democracy and fairness on the internet as well.

Dr Irina Soeffky, Director for National, European and International Digital Policy at the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport

Dr Regine Grienberger is Ambassador for Cyber Foreign and Cybersecurity Policy at the Federal Foreign Office. Her professional career has focused on EU foreign policy as well as EU financial and economic policy with an emphasis on general agricultural policy. Ms. Grienberger was Deputy Head of the Minister’s Office (Gabriel, Maas), Deputy Head of Unit in Unit E04 (EU Economic and Financial Affairs) and Advisor for General Agricultural Policy, responsible among other things for crisis management during pandemics. Her responsibilities also included EU public relations and the EU’s external relations with countries in the Western Balkans. At the German Embassy in Rome, she was head of the political section, at the German Embassy in Ljubljana she was cultural, press and protocol attaché. Ms. Grienberger studied agricultural science in Bonn, Munich, Vienna and at Michigan State University. She received her doctorate in Bonn.

Dr Irina Soeffky is Director for National, European and International Digital Policy at the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport. She has more than 15 years of experience in public service and has worked extensively on international issues. She holds a degree in law and economics.