Is Germany's digital angst practical or paranoid?

In Germany, skepticism of the web runs deep. Is it justified?
Written by Shannon Smith, Correspondent (Berlin)

BERLIN -- Robert Mrowinski considers himself a man of the road somewhat less traveled.

When he gave up his ultra-secure government job at the German tax and revenue office in 1994, people called him crazy. They also told him that if he was going to become an independent accountant, as he planned to, he would have to do away with his beloved "Ente" or duck, as the caricature-ish Citroën 2CV hatchback is known in Germany. It just wasn't what accountants drove, they said.

Mrowinski kept the Ente. Some 19 years and 600 clients later, he and his accounting staff of ten are still doing things the old-fashioned way -- namely processing and submitting tax returns for some 600 clients by hand -- in the name of data security. The rebellion is a pushback against Germany's new requirement that all tax returns be submitted electronically -- a federal law that took effect in 2009, but lacks enforcement in bureaucratically rag-tag municipalities like Berlin.

Mrowinski is a prime example of German skepticism of the informational transition to the web -- fueled partly by the country's deep-seated privacy concerns -- which has expressed itself through below-average national engagement with Facebook, protests against the photographing of house facades for Google's StreetView, and a number of other high-profile incidents. Though more than 77 percent of Germans are active online, one survey shows that about 74 percent believe the abuse and illegal sharing of personal data online will only worsen in the future -- a particularly gloomy outlook from Europe's political and economic leader.

"One has the feeling that German consciousness is lagging behind, ignoring the 'digital climate change' that could well be changing the context of its culture and economy over the next decade," German digital strategy consultant Martin Lindner said.

In working with enterprises and organizations to introduce web-based tools and strategies into workflow, Lindner told SmartPlanet he is all too familiar with the German problem of digital angst, which he views as heavily fueled by the country's leaders, among other factors.

"German political elites are only too happy to lend their ear to conservatism and skepticism, precisely because they feel uncomfortable with the cultural and economical changes coming up right now," Lindner said. "They would be happiest if they could develop a conservative, top-down approach to digital culture -- more SAP than the Web."

When Angela Merkel called the internet "Neuland," or "virgin territory," during U.S. President Barack Obama's 2013 visit, she was widely criticized for depicting Germany, an economic and technological world power, in such an ignorant light. Indeed, the battle for the country's digital soul wages on, with stakeholders tugging the conversation between the ideological camps of privacy and freedom. But while Germany's political and cultural leaders recognize "the Internet" as more of a threat than an opportunity, Lindner points out that many Germans have always been quite eager to use Google, Facebook and iPhones privately.

Instead of acknowledging the historical informational breakthrough the web represents, though, Lindner said many still view it has an entertainment platform instead of a pan-industry game-changer -- a reality that has frustrated many young German visionaries to the point of immigration.

"There is no such thing as a thriving culture of innovation, where something comparable to the Silicon Valley way of doing things could be developed," Lindner said. "There's a reason entrepreneurial pioneers of the digital revolution like Google's Sebastian Thrun and entrepreneur Albert Wenger are now expats."

Resistance is by no means limited to the country's political and social elite, though. Lindner suggests that some still identify with Germany as "Autoland," since the economic boom in the country between 1955 and 2005 was driven by today's most successful car companies and associated businesses. Hedescribed an underlying fear of the future, perhaps driven by the fear that the Golden Era of German industry is approaching its end, despite impressive national economic performance.

"It is still much more popular to invest in highway infrastructure than broadband infrastructure," Lindner said, adding that broadband infrastructure in certain regions and urban areas in Germany is often worse than in much poorer European countries like Romania and Bulgaria.

Coupled with the country's first-hand knowledge of the value of privacy and its stake in personal freedom -- from the gruesome acts of the Nazi Gestapo and East Germany's abusive Stasi, to post-reunification spying that violated the privacy of millions as late as the 90s -- citizens are naturally wary of potential personal data abuses.

When asked if the incensed reaction to the NSA scandal is "typically German," U.S. political scientist and transatlantic specialist Andrew Denison told German news outlet Deutsche Welle that politicians and the media are the only hysterical ones around. "It's a pseudo fury," he said, adding that most of the Germans he talked to had long suspected foreign spying and data abuses.

Tax accountant Mrowinski counts himself among the suspicious -- but describes his seemingly practical relationship to the threat: "Maybe it sounds silly, but it was clear to me that [the NSA scandal] was happening -- or would happen," he says, adding that the surest solution seemed to be continuing to restrict his business to pen, paper and computers on a closed network.

So, where does Lindner see Germany's digital angst taking the country at this rate?

"Maybe the future holds a worthwhile critical discourse, opposing the 'Internet Centrism' of Silicon Valley and following the German tradition of [thoughtful skepticism]," he says.

"But the jury is still out."

PHOTO: Flickr / János Balázs

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards