Germany's Global Technology Diplomacy
The fusion of technological, geopolitical, and ideological ambitions is fragmenting internet governance discourse, cyber norms diplomacy, technical standard-setting, and global connectivity infrastructure.
The new German government has made support for global, open, and secure digital connectivity a centerpiece of its foreign policy. However, it has yet to make the shaping of a corresponding international technology agenda a strategic policy priority.
To shape a global technology order that reflects Germany’s interests as a high-tech industrial economy and democratic society, the government should focus on realizing synergies with EU international digital policy, strengthening coordination with like-minded partners, and engaging with the Global South on an inclusive and democratic global digital agenda.
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Russia’s war against Ukraine rocked Germany’s stability-minded “change through trade” doctrine. The conflict consequently unleashed significant knock-on effects on Germany’s technology foreign policy, which has important geopolitical and ideological dimensions. China is already pushing for technological leadership in its quest to surpass the United States as a great power by the midpoint of this century. Authoritarian regimes are also harnessing digital technology, once hailed as an enabler of civic challenges to oppression, to tighten their domestic grip on power.
The fusion of technological, geopolitical, and ideological ambitions is fragmenting internet governance discourse, cyber norms diplomacy, technical standard-setting, and global connectivity infrastructure. Germany must step up its international efforts and work closely with its partners and allies to counter this trend. The country must become an active shaper of a governance landscape that reflects its interests and values as a high-tech powerhouse, globalized economy, and liberal democracy.
The State of Play
At the heart of the fragmentation that is rattling international digital governance is the struggle for control over global digital connectivity. The internet’s original conception as an open, global, decentralized, and multistakeholder-governed infrastructure clashes with some states’ push for exclusive sovereign control over information flows and political expression. China and Russia jointly clarified that they would deem unacceptable “any attempts to limit their sovereign right to regulate national segments of the Internet and ensure their security.” Equally worrying is the increasing implementation of interventionist content-monitoring regimes and internet shutdowns similar to that which occurred during anti-government protests in Belarus (summer 2020) and Kazakhstan (winter 2021-22).
These opposing visions translate into intensifying powerplays around the internet itself, notably within the bodies that administrate and develop it. Democratic states of the Global North, including Germany, have responded by reaffirming their support for technical internet governance built around a cluster of multistakeholder bodies, including the Internet Society (ISOC), the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). These countries are also advancing ambitious regulatory initiatives, such as the EU’s Digital Markets Act, to limit large technology companies’ centralization and mediation of private and corporate online activity. Importantly, democratic states are building a common political vision through the Christchurch Call for a free, open, and secure internet, the Paris Call for Stability and Security in Cyberspace, and, most recently, the Elmau G7 Resilient Democracies Statement.
These efforts pit democracies against major authoritarian powers, in particular China, Russia, and Iran, that prioritize a vision based on national sovereignty and state control. Internationally, these powers are upping their efforts to shift governance functions away from multistakeholder bodies supported by Germany and its partners. Chinese company Huawei, for example, used the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to propose a “NewIP” initiative that would renew the internet protocol (IP) suite. This could not only duplicate the work of multistakeholder bodies and undermine interoperability with the existing IP architecture but, some fear, also embed greater opportunities for information control in the internet’s logical layer. China is also promoting its cyber sovereignty agenda through parallel institution-building. A recent example is the foundation of the Wuzhen-based World Internet Conference as an international organization.
These fault lines characterize international cyber norms diplomacy, too. Agreement on the OEWG’s final report last year was the first time that consensus on cyber norms had been reached in a process open to all UN member states. Notably, the report included agreement on language and on recommendations for responsible state behavior that emanated from UN Governmental Groups of Expert (GGE) meetings. However, differences persist, particularly on the involvement of non-governmental stakeholders and a focus on implementation, both of which Germany supports. A French-Egyptian proposal, supported by Germany, for a Program of Action that aims to invigorate cooperation through a permanent UN forum is at risk of fading into obscurity if not urgently advanced.
Divisions also remain in the area of cybercrime. After a decade of failed attempts, Russia secured approval in December 2019 for a UN General Assembly resolution deciding the elaboration of a new cybercrime convention. Negotiations on the convention commenced this year and will continue until the 78th General Assembly session in 2023. But the resolution is a blow to Germany’s goal of strengthening the existing Budapest Convention, and there is concern that a new convention could undermine fundamental freedoms under the pretext of tackling cybercrime. Another setback came from the 14th Beijing BRICS statement of June 2022, which reaffirmed these states’ support for the Ad Hoc Committee on a new cybercrime convention.
The internet governance and cyber norms discourse also reflects a worrying global trend among G77+ states, many of which are democratic but position themselves between intergovernmental and multistakeholder visions of internet governance. The G7 Democratic Resilience Statement won the backing of the +5 countries (Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal, and South Africa) invited to Germany’s Elmau summit. But many of those same countries have been reluctant to place the Paris Call and the Declaration for the Future of the Internet (DFI) – signed by Germany, the EU, and more than 30 other countries as an effort to articulate a positive and human rights-centered vision for the internet – among the central elements of a global digital order.
The rising ideological fragmentation also translates into efforts to stake out technology-infrastructure spheres of influence, particularly across the Global South. The digital component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to connect dozens of countries through Chinese fiber optic cables, satellite navigation systems, data centers, and 5G/6G network infrastructure as well as to promote technologies for smart cities and ports, predictive policing, and health data analytics. This digital BRI extends across the EU’s immediate neighborhood, including the Balkans and North Africa, and into Germany itself, with Duisburg seen as the BRI’s European endpoint.
To respond to the BRI, the G7, under the German presidency, committed to collectively mobilize $600 billion in public and private investment over the coming five years through its Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII). But questions remain as to how these funds will be mobilized and, crucially, how ambitious and competitive the PGII’s information and communications technology (ICT) component will be against BRI’s digital component, which has already disbursed an estimated $79 billion in investments. Moreover, how the PGII interlinks with the EU’s €300 billion Global Gateway initiative launched in late 2021 is yet to be seen. Given the challenging geopolitical context, combining various national, EU, and G7 initiatives into a coherent and competitive strategic response to China’s BRI remains a key challenge for Germany and like-minded countries.
Such infrastructure geopolitics are accompanied by a relative decline in the ability of Germany and its European partners to shape global technical standards. China, especially, has been highly successful at positioning technical experts in key Standard-setting Bodies (SSBs). Between 2011 and 2018, China’s share of International Standards Organization (ISO) Technical Committee/Subcommittee and Working Group secretariats, respectively, almost doubled and more than tripled. Chinese representatives for the first time in 2020 took on a greater number of new ISO technical leadership positions than Germany. Notably, China is the only country that participates in every subcommittee of the Joint Technical Committee (JTC 1), which is central to the development of ICT standards within the ISO/International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) framework, including for cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and AI. Chinese nationals have also recently held, or are holding, the top leadership position at the ISO, the ITU, and the IEC.
For Germany and Europe, the creeping shift from standard-setter to standard-adopter risks inflicting substantial adjustment costs on industry. Germany still accounts for more secretariats than the United States, China, and other major countries in the ISO and IEC. But China’s state-centric standardization system has allowed Beijing to expand influence strategically in domains such as AI and 5G networking. This is also a political concern. Standards can enshrine values, such as privacy protection (or the lack thereof), and may turn into national security threats when they (deliberately) include cyber vulnerabilities that become unknowingly adopted around the world.
Yet, amid this fragmentation, a new institutional architecture for the governance of emerging technologies is starting to develop. AI is a key example of this, given the G7-initiated Global Partnership on AI (GPAI), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Council on AI, the Council of Europe’s Ad Hoc Committee on AI (CAHAI), and major technology companies’ AI principles. Similar governance ecosystems are expected to develop and create norms and standards for quantum technologies, the use of cryptocurrencies, a distributed ledger-based internet (Web3), and smart and green technologies. This will open a critical diplomatic playing field for Germany, the EU, and their partners.
The Current Policy Approach
Germany’s commitment to multilateralism and a rules-based order strongly shapes its approach to international technology policy. The new Ampel government has made strengthened multilateralism and support for global, open, and secure digital connectivity a centerpiece of its foreign policy.
Consistent with this outlook, Germany is a key player in the construction of a multilateral architecture for technology cooperation. Following the UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, Germany, with the United Arab Emirates, championed proposals for a framework for global digital cooperation that included a reformed Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Germany convened the IGF in 2019 and is considering hosting the 2025 gathering. Germany is also advancing the establishment of a normative order in cyberspace. It is a supporter of the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace and is engaged in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe’s work on artificial intelligence (CAHAI) and data protection (Convention 108+), and the UN OEWG on ICT in the context of international security.
At the same time, Germany is struggling to leverage its participation in smaller and more informal groups to develop a forward-looking technology agenda with like-minded states. Germany’s 2017 G20 presidency demonstrated the country’s ability to anchor technology as a core issue, including by hosting the G20’s first-ever digital ministers’ meeting. However, the government’s prism on digital issues remains primarily commercial. During its current G7 presidency, Berlin boosted its rhetoric on challenges such as internet fragmentation and digital authoritarianism. In substance, however, Germany chose not to make digital issues a strategic policy priority.
Germany is, however, actively drawing on its extensive diplomatic network and development apparatus to engage with the Global South on digital issues. It has recently revived regular digital dialogue with key countries, such as Brazil, Japan, and India, to prepare joint research and development projects, discuss cyber issues, and coordinate work in multilateral settings. The bilateral format has proved useful, and Berlin is negotiating similar digital dialogues with South Korea, Indonesia, and Argentina. Germany has also recognized Africa’s strategic importance in the digital sphere. Since 2015, it has channeled €164 million into digital projects through its “Digital Africa” initiative and initiated more than 200 public-private partnerships in the African technology sector. The digital and foreign ministries are scoping institutionalized digital dialogue with multistakeholder participation from the private sector, civil society, and subnational governments in the African Union, Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana. Intensified digital cooperation with Egypt is under consideration.
But as the strategic stakes rise, Germany’s leverage to shape global digital connectivity increasingly depends on realizing synergies with EU efforts. Germany’s technology diplomacy is, in fact, embedded in a larger turn toward a distinctly (geo-)strategic outlook on technology policy at the EU level. The bloc’s Digital Compass for 2030 affirms that technology is a factor in “global influence,” and Brussels emphasizes, more than the German policy discourse does, the link between digital sovereignty and European values.
The EU has begun to translate this link into actionable foreign policy. This includes formats such as the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) (whose Paris meeting, for instance, launched new ICT security guidelines for trustworthy vendors in development initiatives, expanding the EU’s 5G cybersecurity toolbox), the new TTC with India, and the Global Gateway initiative. Against the backdrop of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the EU-US TTC, in particular, is developing into a vehicle for democratic coordination on issues ranging from investment screening and export controls to resilient semiconductor supply chains. The EU is also opening an office in Silicon Valley to strengthen transatlantic engagement on digital agendas.
Germany’s success as a shaper of a global technology order that enables it as a leading high-tech industrial economy and bends towards democracy will depend on how successfully it nests its values and interests in a set of alliances, partnerships, and norms. To that end, German should:
Advance the notion of a democratic technology trust zone. This trust zone would regulate flows of skills, capital, and data to boost competitiveness and trustworthiness for strategically important ICT infrastructure such as network equipment, cloud/edge service providers, and smart-city technology. It should be built on regulatory best practices and a strategic approach to tech-industrial policy that leverages mutual dependencies to lock in cooperation and safeguard access to critical technologies and materials. To that effect, the government should support a strong institutional nucleus in the form of an ambitious G7 digital ministerial meeting, an expanded OECD digital agenda, and intensified EU-US TTC meetings..
Establish a global connectivity doctrine with open internet access as a fundamental right. Germany should work with EU members and other like-minded democracies to devise jointly financed “connectivity packages” that bundle digital infrastructure assistance with cyber capacity-building and long-term support for local digital rights NGOs. But cooperation must extend beyond national governments. Germany should prod the EU and NATO, in addition to like-minded countries, to provide capabilities (e.g., satellite) that preserve connectivity to the internet and, therefore, open information flows during authoritarian-driven internet shutdowns and in conflict zones.
Create a German Open Tech Foundation. The Ampel coalition specifically refers to digital sovereignty in the Global South as a priority for ensuring freedom to choose vendors, platforms, and ICT infrastructure; avoiding lock-in effects; and guaranteeing an individual, not state-centric, notion of digital self-determination. A German Open Tech Foundation (GOTF) would join the country’s political foundations, among other state-adjacent NGOs, to support funding for democracy-enhancing technologies in line with this understanding of digital sovereignty.
Counter politicization of critical and emerging technologies standard-setting. As the weight of non-market economies in SSBs grows, Germany should initiate an international study group that identifies whether and what political instruments may be used to capture standard-setting for critical and emerging technologies. This should form the basis for coordinated engagement with SSBs on ensuring the primacy of technical criteria and preserving SSBs’ reputation for impartiality. The German government should also encourage high-quality draft introductions, for example by allowing the participation of the academic and small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sectors in emerging technology standards work to be considered funding-eligible R&D.
Work to avoid the emergence of a digital “Non-Aligned Movement”. A global democratic technology order must reach beyond the transatlantic community. Worryingly, as technology becomes increasingly geopolitical, G77+ states are avoiding a clear affirmation of a common democratic technology agenda. India is a pivotal but complex partner in this regard. Germany already revived in 2022 its digital dialogue with India and included the country in this year’s G7 guest list. Given India’s 2023 G20 presidency, Germany should now build on this to emphasize India’s democratic responsibility to champion an inclusive digital agenda centered on climate-friendly technology as well as open and free connectivity.
Engage collaboratively in EU-US technology dialogue, especially in the TTC. Germany should create a bilateral digital dialogue with the United States that can align and amplify policy deliverables from the TTC. But Germany should also increase its engagement elsewhere, particularly in a constructive conclusion to and implementation of the post-Privacy Shield Transatlantic Data Privacy Framework. The German-American Futures Forum, which was conceived as part of the July 2021 Washington Declaration and whose initial meeting will occur in November 2022, could be another vehicle for deeper engagement, specifically on democracy-enabling technologies and norms.
Create asymmetric technology alliances with subnational governments. Cities and states are increasingly assuming digital governance responsibilities that national governments are unwilling or unable to undertake. In the United States, cities and states have led in data protection, in part by placing guardrails around AI-powered facial recognition technology and algorithmic bias in sensitive areas such as hiring. In China, Brazil, and India, subnational governments are driving technology industrial and regulatory policy. Germany, in line with the European Council’s new digital diplomacy conclusions, should work with subnational governments to build technology alliances that reflect German and EU regulatory values and support subnational adoption of cyber and internet governance norms.
About the Project
This DGAP project proposes an integrated policy approach to German digital capacities and objectives. Such a strategy should link Germany’s incumbent industrial strengths and digital governance objectives with its geopolitical aims.
This is the sixth in a series of reports that outlines an integrated approach based on seven interdependent layers of a "technology policy stack." For this analysis, the DGAP invited 30 individuals to join a working group and participate, between July and October 2021, in seven off-the-record workshops on the crucial strategic dimensions of Germany’s international digital identity. Participants included elected officials, candidates, and senior German government representatives; German political party staff responsible for platforms and coalition agreements; subject matter experts in technology and foreign policy; thought leaders and senior technology-company management; key academics, economists, and political theorists; and representatives of civil society and digital rights advocacy organizations. Additional experts were invited to take part in the workshops on an ad hoc basis. Each workshop focused on a layer in Germany’s technology policy stack. Working group members were consulted intermittently during the drafting of this series.
We are grateful to the Open Society Initiative for Europe for their generous support, which made this project possible.