Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Transatlantic Cyber Dialogue

27.06.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

John Podesta,
I’m delighted to meet you once more here in Berlin after having worked so well together for many years.

Distinguished guests from the United States,
Colleagues from the German Bundestag and the Federal Ministries,
Representatives of business, academia and civil society,

I’m very glad that our two countries’ delegations spent yesterday evening together!

It was an exciting evening – there’s no doubt about it – but as we spoke sufficiently about this yesterday, so we can devote our attention to another issue today.

For the main focus of this conference is not football but, rather, living and working in the digital age.

Today, we not only want to begin a transatlantic debate.

We want to do something together to ensure a free, safe and open Internet in the 21st century. So that the right to privacy isn’t trampled underfoot.

We Germans and Americans share this goal – I’m convinced of that when I look at the debate within America, even if we don’t always reach the same conclusions – and that’s why our dialogue is worthwhile.


I’d like to start by giving you, John, and your American colleagues a brief outline of the state of the public debate on digitisation here in Germany.

I’ll be straight with you: people are concerned. And if we take a closer look, we see that they have two quite different concerns.

On the one hand, there is the fear of the almighty state. The fear that the age of Big Data will become the age of Big Brother.

And on the other hand – seemingly quite contradictorily – there is the fear of the powerless state. The fear is that Big Brother is watching when I look for a restaurant or order a book online, and that it’s the major Internet companies and not states which decide what happens to my data.

We need to take both these concerns seriously.

And there’s only one remedy for both fears: rules and confidence that they will be abided by.

Anyone who wants a free, safe and open Internet or who wants to find new ways of securing prosperity and participation, needs others to support them. That’s why states need the confidence of their citizens and that’s why companies need the confidence of their clients.

This confidence has been damaged!


We can only gain confidence and, above all, regain it if we live credibly by our own values. And if we not only describe these values but also back them up with rules on which everyone can rely.

Some of you will now roll your eyes and say: “Of course, values. Now he’s getting very vague ...” No – I’m being very concrete:

Data is power. And power must be bound by rules and these rules by shared values.

Control over Big Data could be the new power factor in the 21st century.

This power factor is perhaps comparable to the control of production means in the process of industrialisation or the control of the state apparatus when the centralised state was born.

With these historical comparisons in mind, I want to look at an enduring work from the past which our American friends will most certainly know.

One of the greatest speeches ever made dates back to 1863.

One thing is especially astonishing about this speech – particularly for those of us used to day-to-day politics here in Germany: it lasted less than three minutes... I, at least, have already passed that mark...

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln evoked the legendary idea of “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

This idea was so exciting because it was so new. Democracy, federal state, constitutional state – all of this was uncharted territory!

It was new in an America plagued by civil war, and most certainly in the rest of the world.

And if I look at my own political tradition, German social democracy in the 19th century, then it was so exciting because it, too, entered uncharted territory. This was because it endeavoured to lend a human face to the huge changes brought about by industrialisation.

Today, we too are facing uncharted territory: the digital revolution.

We too, not knowing what social consequences it will have, have to lend this revolution a human face.

That’s why I feel we should be guided by these great examples and should use this cyber dialogue to seek an “Internet of the people, by the people, for the people”.


That sounds ambitious – and it is.

What do I mean in concrete terms?

First of all, the Internet has always been an Internet “of the people”.

It has grown in a decentralised fashion.

It doesn’t belong to anybody. No state or company can claim to own it.

The Internet is a global commodity. It has always crossed borders.

In order to ensure that that remains the case, to ensure that it doesn’t become fragmented or frayed, foreign policy also has to play its part – most especially our transatlantic policy.


Secondly, the Internet has always been an Internet “by the people” – or in the language of netizens (I’ve been told that they are the digital natives): the Internet is a multi-stakeholder space.

And it should remain so – that’s why you’re all here today: representatives of companies, parliament, academia and civil society.

Today the Internet has around two and a half billion users. In five years’ time, it will be more than double that number.

The bigger the Internet becomes, the more it’ll need rules, and institutions which can ensure that these rules are abided by. We therefore have to think all the more about how we want to lend this rapidly growing Internet democratic legitimacy – “by the people”.

I believe we have to set standards for such an Internet, and we have to fight in the international fora to ensure that the Internet remains a free and secure space, also for the billions of additional users in the future.


And thirdly, the Internet “for the people”. There’s no doubt that the Internet has already radically changed our lives.

John and I belong to the generation which bought music in record shops. John, I don’t know what it’s like in your house, but my daughter doesn’t even know what a record shop is...

She lives in YouTube and SoundCloud.

In the old days, we listened to songs by the Stones such as “Get off my cloud” ... that has a completely different meaning nowadays!

Experts tell us that the changes brought about by the Internet will accelerate even more in future.

Take industry, for example: we’re now at the start of Industry 4.0.

I always think of Industry 4.0 as bringing people with yellow hard hats together with people wearing hipster glasses. Thus, Industry 4.0 is the digitisation of traditional industrial production.

The US and Germany can set the standards for Industry 4.0.

For we Germans – as you know! – are pretty good at everything which involves wearing yellow hard hats. But we have some catching up to do when it comes to hipster glasses.

Do you know what the most valuable German brands are? Mercedes, BMW and Siemens, of course. Do you know what they have in common?

They’re all more than one hundred years old.

Do you know what the most valuable American brands are?

Apple, Google and Microsoft.

And what do they have in common? They’re all under 40!

Thankfully, we too have some of these younger players – SAP and the Software AG. Nevertheless, I believe that

Germany needs a new “Gründerzeit”, a new age of entrepreneurs, and for that we have great synergies with America.


Internet “for the people” means something else, too. Something which Frank Schirrmacher, who sadly died far too early, thought about: participation. For access to the Internet means access to information, networks, jobs – everything we need to forge ahead in a modern society.

I’ve already mentioned the early days of social democracy.

Back then, in the 19th century, one of the core ideas of the labour movement was education. Its slogan was “Give every child a book”.

This slogan still holds true today – even my daughter would agree with it: offline storage is still very helpful.... However we need a new slogan in the digital revolution:

“Give every child a laptop!”

Equal opportunities in the 21st century also means: equal opportunities in the digital sphere.

If we don’t succeed, if the Internet is closed off to some or state-controlled or simply unaffordable, tomorrow’s world will be even more unequal than today’s. We mustn’t allow that to happen.


Yes, I believe all of this is possible in the digital space. However, if this vision were so close to realisation, then fears in society I mentioned at the start of my speech wouldn’t exist.

So let’s be honest: we ourselves, especially we ourselves, have to find our bearings in this digital age. That’s not easy for us: in Germany and in transatlantic relations.

Firstly, because values clash and have to be weighed up.

And secondly, because this process of weighing up is taking place in uncharted territory.

We don’t have a precedence, just as Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a precedence for the federal state.

This is about weighing up freedom against security. Of course, global interconnectivity not only increases opportunities but also risks – no-one has experienced this so painfully as Americans did on 9/11.

We take these threats seriously.

We have to take this seriously rather than ignore it and we certainly don’t want to replace it with a cyber dialogue of some kind.

How much freedom – how much security? For me, that’s the fundamental question at the heart of all debates on the topic of the NSA and other issues.

You have a good word in the English language for which we have no direct equivalent in German: “reasonable”.

We have to be reasonable when weighing up values. But we Germans also have a word which can help us in this context: we say that the relationship between values has to be “verhältnismäßig”, that’s to say proportionate.

For – and Benjamin Franklin knew this – “If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both”. So let’s get started with Franklin’s words in mind!

We should draw up a frank cost-benefit analysis which establishes the cost that we are willing to pay in terms of privacy for a gain in security.

And then we have to apply this process of weighing up quite concretely to the work of our security authorities, our intelligence services and draw the right conclusions when it comes to regulating our companies and in relation to state authorities, as well as to change rules and laws where necessary.

Let me be quite frank here: that applies to both our countries.

And it applies to our relations with others in the world. I expressly welcome the recommendation contained in your Big Data Report, John, that the protection of privacy should apply to foreign citizens just as much as it should to your own. And rightly so.

In this spirit, Germany and Brazil tabled a resolution on the protection of privacy in the UN General Assembly.

It wouldn’t be right if, on the one hand, the Internet is regarded as an inherently global space and, on the other, not to regard privacy on the Internet as an inherently global right, as a right which everyone has, regardless of their country of origin.

These are the joint tasks we have to tackle if we want to create an Internet “of the people, by the people and for the people”.


The question is:

Why does this task fall to us, the US and Germany?

Well, firstly because our two countries are globally interconnected like no other nations in the world.

Secondly, because together we are in a position to shape the advance of globalisation in a positive way.

Thirdly, because the values for which we stand are by no means shared by everyone in the world!

An authoritarian government sees a free and open Internet as a threat to its power.

However, we believe a free and open Internet offers opportunities for participation, knowledge and progress.

If that is our transatlantic interpretation, then we are bound by more than what – in some current debates – separates us.

That’s why I want to end with a request: Yes, let’s set about our tasks, also the difficult ones.

But let’s do so by moving forward together instead of getting caught up. For as the saying goes: the end of the journey is reached by moving ahead.

Thank you very much.

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