Olaf Scholz on Thursday became the first German chancellor ever to address attendees at the re:publica conference.

The three-day confab on digital life — focussed mainly on issues revolving around Web 2.0, including blogs and social media — is meeting live in Berlin for the first time since before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. 

Scholz spoke in dire terms when assessing of the state of things today, noting that the “partitioning of the world” threatens to “pit everyone against everyone else rather than fostering global responsibility and international solidarity.”

He lauded his own efforts toward achieving solidarity, such as inviting leaders from Africa, Asia and South America to Berlin to engage in talks and to show that Germany is listening to the concerns of others. He also denounced the ascendancy of the concept of deglobalization — embodied by popular nationalist movements like Brexit in the UK or Trumpism in the US — as “a dangerous aberration.”

Scholz told audience members: “No one can disconnect themselves from the rest of the world. That applies to the analog world, where climate change, health crises, fighting poverty, trade and the transfer of knowledge make international cooperation indispensable. But that equally applies to the digital sphere, perhaps even more so.”

Scholz says China, Russia creating a ‘splinternet’

The chancellor called out state actors — notably China and Russia — for limiting internet access, using the word “splinternet” to describe their success at keeping their citizens in the dark.

He also noted that state actors and criminal organizations are aggressively weaponizing the digital realm to launch cyber attacks and digital disinformation campaigns in the geopolitical sphere — something he said democracies must better defend against.

In this context, Scholz said a “digital political transformation” was required to ensure the internet remain “a progressive democratizing space that fosters the free exchange of ideas.”

Berlin inspired by Brussels when it comes to digital infrastructure

He praised the decision of chip makers to expand and diversify production, pointing to Intel’s decision to build a new chip factory in Germany. Scholz noted that new EU policies were partly responsible for the development and that they had personally inspired him to push for massive national investments in digitalization — pointing out that Germany lags woefully behind when it comes to digital infrastructure.

Scholz, who relayed an anecdote lamenting the fact that he could not renew his passport online, but rather had to do so in person, also pledged to present a legislative framework by the end of the year that would enable Germany “to cut administrative processing times by at least half.”     

Corporate responsibility and ‘enlightened civil society’

Finally, Scholz spoke of how the “limits of what can be said” are purposely shifted each and every day, pointing to, “the ever-widening chasm between what one would say face-to-face and what one is confronted with on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.”

He said “freedom of expression is a precious commodity” that the state itself cannot, must not, limit but called instead on platforms and companies to recognize and take on their own responsibility to society in the digital realm just as others do in the analog world.

Still, the chancellor made a point of not giving individual users a free pass, calling for a renewed consciousness for what is acceptable online behavior. This, he said, must be fostered by schools, but noted that this alone was not sufficient.

“Ultimately,” said Scholz, “what is needed is a watchful, enlightened civil society: One that recognizes that democracy requires discourse and controversy — but also ethical guardrails.”

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