Germany’s new government will firmly defend encryption, key Social Democrat says

During the coalition negotiations and with hindsight, it was agreed that "Germany has tended to adopt a wait-and-see position on the topic of digital in Europe," the digital policy expert for the Social Democrats (SPD), Jens Zimmermann, has said. EPA-EFE/OMER MESSINGER [OMER MESSINGER/EPA]

The next German government intends to speak more strongly in favour of end-to-end encryption and against the introduction of backdoors, the digital policy expert for the Social Democrats (SPD) who co-negotiated the coalition agreement’s chapter on digitalisation, told EURACTIV in an interview.

To crack down on child abuse, discussions are currently taking place at the EU level to weaken encryption and introduce so-called “backdoors”, which are most often used for securing remote access to a computer. Messenger services like WhatsApp or Telegram, which are so far protected by end-to-end encryption, could thus be searched for child abuse content.

According to Jens Zimmermann, the German coalition negotiations had made it “quite clear” that the incoming government of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the business-friendly liberal FDP would reject “the weakening of encryption, which is being attempted under the guise of the fight against child abuse” by the coalition partners.

Such regulations, which are already enshrined in the interim solution of the ePrivacy Regulation, for example, “diametrically contradict the character of the coalition agreement” because secure end-to-end encryption is guaranteed there, Zimmermann said.

Introducing backdoors would undermine this goal of the coalition agreement, he added.

“What is sometimes proposed in the ePrivacy Regulation goes far beyond what we envisage in terms of vulnerability management,” Zimmermann told EURACTIV, adding that implementation would “mean actively creating vulnerabilities.”

In mid-October, security experts warned in a report that the tools used by tech companies to introduce backdoors would not only entail enormous security risks but would also disproportionately encroach on users’ privacy.

“It is, of course, no coincidence that once again the vehicle of the fight against child abuse is being used,” he said, noting that, at an emotional level, it is “the biggest lever you can pull”. Those in favour of weakening encryption mainly bring up the fight against child abuse as an argument.

This is the “completely wrong route” to take for the new coalition, the digital expert warned, adding that he is “already assuming that Germany will now position itself more clearly here”.

What Germany's likely coalition has in store for digitalisation

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), the business-friendly FDP and the Greens, who are soon to hold coalition talks, have pointed to digitalisation as one of the top priorities in a preliminary coalition agreement. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Digital policy at the EU level

Zimmermann also stressed that the upcoming German government would represent its interests much more strongly at the EU level. “We want to make European digital policy from a single mould,” he told EURACTIV.

During the coalition negotiations, it was agreed that “Germany has tended to adopt a wait-and-see position on the topic of digital in Europe”.

According to Zimmermann, this applies mainly to the major EU dossiers like the Digital Services Act or the Digital Markets Act (DMA), where Germany has failed to establish itself as a driving force and has isolated itself on certain issues.

The new coalition has thus agreed on the goal of pursuing “a coherent digital policy in Europe”, the SPD politician said, noting that this would not mean that these legal acts would be “rolled up from scratch” again.

The next government would work to ensure that the regulations on the DMA – which aims to limit the market power of large digital corporations – do not fall short of the Restraints of Competition Act,  Zimmermann also said.

As regards the Digital Services Act (DSA), the coalition said it will push to “strike a new balance” between citizens’ rights and security interests.

The coalition agreement features the main priorities for the DSA. These include advocating for the protection of communication freedoms, a strengthening of users’ rights and access to the data of large digital companies for research purposes. Algorithms used by tech companies are to be made more verifiable and clearer rules for disinformation are to be created, the agreement also states.

At national level

Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which has a similar scope to the EU’s DSA and has served as its model, according to Zimmermann, is not without controversy in the country.

The FDP campaigned for its abolition during the Bundestag election campaign because, according to the liberal party, it encroached too much on civil liberties.

But Zimmermann does not believe the liberal party would drag its reservations on the NetzDG into discussions on the EU’s DSA.

“It is no longer a question of winning any symbolic victories, but we simply have to see that we get a good regulation in the end,” Zimmermann said.

German parties offer conflicting views on the EU digital future

Digitalisation is one of the hot topics of Germany’s upcoming federal election and the parties are offering different visions of what Germany’s role in EU digital policymaking should be and the ways to foster digital sovereignty and strategic autonomy.

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters