A survey on the state of digitalisation in Europe’s largest economy
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital transformation across many areas of society. At the same time, it has revealed that parts of the economy and public administration are sorely lagging behind in the adoption of digital technologies. The Bavarian Research Institute for Digital Transformation and the SZ Institute have conducted a large-scale representative survey to find out how Germans see the state of digitalisation in their country.
The survey, for which over 9,000 people were interviewed in August and September 2021, covers the topics user behaviour, digital competence, digital transformation of the workplace, e-government and artificial intelligence.
The survey found that more than 90 per cent of Germans over the age of 14 use the internet for private purposes. 21 per cent say they are online nearly all the time. There is, however, a digital divide in the country. For example, only 71 per cent of people over the age of 65 use the internet for private purposes and only 8 per cent are “always online”, in contrast to 41 per cent of those under the age of 30. Apart from younger people, men, highly educated people and high-income earners also use the internet and digital devices more frequently on average.
The respondents were asked to rank their digital competence using a self-assessment test. Overall, Germans scored an average of only 55 out of 100 points. A majority of Germans said they feel at least occasionally overwhelmed when using digital devices or the internet. Only 14 per cent of respondents said they were never overwhelmed. As with user behaviour, there is also a digital divide between different social groups.
Regarding the digital transformation of the workplace, the survey shows that more than a third of working Germans think that digitalisation receives too little attention in their professional environment. It is noteworthy that particularly small and medium-sized companies scored poorly. Overall, more than half of Germans think that not enough attention is being paid to digitalisation. All the same, a third of Germans said that the Covid-19 pandemic has positively changed their attitude towards the topic.
Read more in the January 2022 bidt-SZ-Digitalbarometer (in German).
Breaking the Chains?
Blockchain and Human Rights
It is hard to think of a new technology that has simultaneously generated more enthusiasm and scepticism in recent years. Whether cryptocurrencies in the world of finance or NFTs in the art world, it seems that blockchain technology has prompted a digital gold rush. Yet it is far from clear whether its potential applications justify the craze or whether we are dealing with a speculative bubble. A study by the Center for Strategic & International Studies has now examined blockchain’s potential in the area of human rights: from voting and digital identity, to land rights management and supply chain transparency.
A blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that allows a group of users to collectively maintain a record of transactions. Since each new block of data refers back to the previous one and is encrypted by means of cryptographic algorithms, it is virtually impossible to tamper with the stored information retroactively without being detected. The decentralised nature of the technology also eliminates the need for intermediary authorities, promising greater transparency and data resiliency and minimising the risk of corruption and misuse. Some hope that with these features, blockchains can help solve a range of problems in the field of human rights and international development.
But how realistic are these hopes? The Washington-based think tank takes a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of the technology in four prominent use cases: supply chain transparency, voting, digital identity and land rights management. The report’s findings are rather ambivalent: even though implementing blockchain technology might provide some benefits in certain areas, it also runs the risk of distracting from, or even exacerbating a number of existing problems which the technology cannot solve.
Read more in the report “The Human Rights Risks and Opportunities” by William Crumpler, published on 14 December 2021.
Social Media in Iran
Life under digital authoritarianism
Iranians have been living under an authoritarian regime for decades. The proliferation of the internet, and especially social media and messaging apps, has changed people’s lives in manifold ways. The Islamic Republic’s leadership faces unprecedented challenges to its attempts to control its citizens as a result of these changes. Even though neither the Green Movement of 2009 nor the protests of recent years have been able to bring down the regime, the government’s very efforts to censor the internet and social media prove their emancipatory potential. A recent study by the Atlantic Council examines both how Iranians use social media and how the clerical establishment restricts the use of the internet.
According to a survey conducted in February 2021, almost three quarters of Iranians over the age of 18 use social media platforms and messaging apps. About 64 per cent of respondents use WhatsApp, 45 per cent use Instagram, 36 per cent use Telegram, 3 per cent use Facebook, 2 use per cent Twitter and 0.3 per cent each use LinkedIn and TikTok. Popular services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked in the country, though they can be accessed using VPNs.
The author Holly Dagres offers an overview of the different contexts in which social media plays a role in Iran in her study. Instagram is particularly important in the field of culture and entertainment, as it is used by many influencers. Both Instagram and Telegram have become indispensable in the business world. More than 80 per cent of all online purchases are made on these or similar apps. The importance of social media and news services in the area of socio-politics can hardly be overstated, according to Dagres. Examples include the mobilisation of protesters and the documentation of human rights violations by security forces. The MeToo movement reached Iran in August 2020, when dozens of women shared stories of sexual harassment and violence on social media. According to a report from September 2021, more than 40 per cent of Iranians get their news mainly through social media – where they have access to information that is not allowed to be reported on in newspapers and on television.
The Iranian government, nonetheless, has been aware of the challenge that the internet poses to its power since at least the protests of 2009, according to the author. Since then, the authorities have not only blocked access to 35 per cent of the world's most visited websites, but have developed a censorship regime similar to China's "Great Firewall". After the largest protests since 2009 broke out in late 2017, the regime responded by blocking the messaging app Telegram. In addition to banning services, the government also restricts the online activities of its citizens through criminal prosecution: among the most common charges are blasphemy, insulting the Supreme Leader, crimes against national security and spreading “immoral” content. In addition, the Islamic Republic's leadership has been building a national intranet for some time, with the official aim of protecting Iranian internet users from foreign cyber-attacks and warding off a "cultural invasion" by the West. However, the national intranet has also made it easy to shut down the internet in Iran – an option the government has made use of on several occasions since the November 2019 protests. As the author points out, US sanctions have made the situation worse for Iranians by cutting them off from international apps and services, forcing them to use Iranian alternatives.
Read more in the study “Iranians on #Social Media” published on 22 January 2022.
Freedom on the Net
Recent developments around the globe
Faith in the internet as a global arena for the free exchange of ideas that would usher in a new democratic age has been displaced by a sense of disillusionment for some time now. Digital authoritarianism is on the rise around the globe and the increasing power of tech companies poses new challenges in democratic countries. Currently, we are witnessing the introduction of drastic restrictions on freedom of expression in Russia, both online and offline. However, last year already saw a decline in global internet freedom, according to the annual report of the Washington-based think tank Freedom House. The report “Freedom on the Net 2021” provides an overview of the state of internet freedom in 70 countries, home to about 88 per cent of the world’s internet users.
According to the report, global internet freedom has declined for the 11th year in a row. 75 per cent of the more than 3.8 billion people who have access to the internet live in countries in which citizens have been arrested or imprisoned for publishing political, social or religious content online. The greatest deteriorations were documented in Myanmar, Belarus and Uganda.
Authorities have introduced new regulations targeting the tech industry in at least 48 countries. While some of the new laws are responses to genuine problems, they have been used to restrict freedom of expression and gain access to private data in many countries. The pushback against the power of large tech companies has taken place alongside unprecedented curbs on freedom of expression online. In at least 20 countries, governments suspended internet access and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms. Moreover, authorities are suspected of having obtained sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology in at least 45 countries.
China tops the list of states with the worst environment for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row. Chinese authorities imposed draconian prison terms for online dissent, independent reporting and mundane daily communications, according to the report. The Covid-19 pandemic remained one of the most heavily censored topics.
Read more in the report “Freedom on the Net 2021. The Global Drive to Control Big Tech” published on 21 September 2021. Freedom House's website also features an interaktiv world map with detailed data and individual country reports.
Imprisoned for a Post
Digital repression in Bangladesh
A new digital security law came into force in Bangladesh on 1 October 2018. Restrictions on freedom of expression have increased since then in the country of 160 million inhabitants, the most densely populated of the world’s larger states. The law gives law enforcement agencies extensive powers and has become a tool for the government and its supporters to crack down on its critics. The mere sharing of a critical post on social media can now lead to arrest.
In the past three years, more than 1,500 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act. The law enables law enforcement authorities to arrest people, search premises and seize equipment without a warrant, based solely on the suspicion that a crime was committed using social media. It also allows the government to order the blocking and removal of any information on the internet that it deems necessary.
A recent article published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace outlines the background of the controversial law and presents the results of an analysis of several hundred court cases. More than half of the accused in these cases are politicians and journalists and a significant number are students, teachers and businesspeople. At the same time, almost 80 per cent of the accusers are supporters and members of the ruling party and government authorities. These figures highlight how the government and its supporters use the law to silence critics. As a result, the Digital Security Act has created a culture of fear, leading journalists to self-censor in order to avoid retribution.
An Amnesty International report from last year takes a closer look at the cases of ten people who were subjected to a wide range of human rights violations under the law, including enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture, simply for having criticised powerful people on social media.
Read more in the article “How Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act Is Creating a Culture of Fear” by Ali Riaz, published on 9 December 2021, and in the Amnesty briefing “No Space for Dissent. Bangladesh’s Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Online” from July 2021.
Diplomacy and Artificial Intelligence
Diplomacy and Artificial Intelligence
Opportunities and limitations of a new technology
As the world has recently been reminded, the success of diplomatic negotiations can never be taken for granted. Trying to find answers to the question why diplomacy failed to prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will without a doubt keep experts and policymakers occupied for quite some time. In light of the rapid developments in artificial intelligence, it is worth considering today whether AI could be a useful tool in the future for analysing the multitude of information diplomats are confronted with more quickly and reliably – and might thus ultimately lead to more successful diplomatic negotiations. A study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs uses two case studies to explore the opportunities and limitations of the technology.
In their study, the authors Volker Stanzel and Daniel Voelsen investigate whether it is possible to use AI systems to evaluate information relevant to diplomatic negotiations to provide a significant strategic advantage. Two case studies are used as a point of illustration: In the first case study, which is based on the negotiations for a German-Austrian customs union in 1930/31, they show how AI can be used to generate a range of possible scenarios in an automated way to aid strategic planning. In the second case study, they examine the possibility of using AI systems to predict the behaviour of states in the United Nations General Assembly. The study also systematically explores further ways of applying AI as a tool for diplomacy, such as automated monitoring of public media during negotiations.
The experts conclude that, at present, AI technology is not yet sophisticated enough to be able to replace the judgment of experienced diplomats. All the same, it could potentially support the preparation and conduct of diplomatic negotiations.
Read more in the SWP research paper “Diplomacy and Artificial Intelligence. Reflections on Practical Assistance for Diplomatic Negotiations”, published on 21 October 2021.
China’s Digital Yuan
A challenge to the dollar?
Are digital currencies the future of money? Following the recent shake-up of the financial world by cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, an increasing number of central banks are planning to introduce digital currencies. China has undoubtedly been at the forefront of this development among the world’s major economies. China has been experimenting with its digital yuan, also known as the e-CNY, in large-scale pilot projects in several cities and regions since 2019, most recently at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
China’s digital currency could enable it to establish a system of cross-border financial transactions that operates independently of the US dollar – making it possible, among other things, to circumvent economic sanctions such as those against Russia or Iran. A recent study published by Carnegie India examines the geopolitical consequences that China’s digital yuan could have for a global financial system so far dominated by the United States.
The U.S. dollar has been playing a central role in the global financial system for more than 70 years, making it one of the pillars of American world hegemony. The dollar remains the world’s most important reserve currency and the United States maintains great control over global payment rails, especially in the case of cross-border transactions. The Belgium-based organisation SWIFT, for example, has to comply with and implement U.S. sanctions, thus giving Washington the power to unilaterally exclude other countries from international payment rails.
With the launch of the digital yuan, China, the birthplace of paper money, is once again at the forefront of global monetary innovation. Unlike digital currencies like Bitcoin, the e-CNY is issued by a central bank which also guarantees its value. The authors of the Carnegie study analyse how China could use the digital yuan as part of its geopolitical strategy to challenge U.S. dominance over the financial world. To internationalise its currency, they argue, China needs to move away not only from the dollar but also from the payment rails it dominates. The best way to achieve both at the same time would be to introduce a new payment rail like central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). By introducing cross-border CBDC payments with allies like Russia, China could mitigate the threat of U.S. sanctions. Western central banks’ digital currency initiatives, meanwhile, are lagging behind and are unlikely to be serious competition for the digital yuan in the near future.
Read more in the paper “China’s Digital Yuan: An Alternative to the Dollar-Dominated Financial System” by Rajesh Banal and Somya Singh, published on 31 August 2021.
Living in a digital society
Digitalisation is not only changing the material foundation on which our everyday lives rest, but it is also driving a profound cultural change. The March issue of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s magazine Die Politische Meinung sets out to explore this shift in society. As its title suggests, it is less concerned with technical aspects of the digital transformation, but rather with trying to understand the changing cultural environment. It includes articles on topics such as the culture of Silicon Valley, the consequences of digitalization for culture and the mind, the power of images in the public digital space, and an interview on recruiting, TikTok and Gen Z.
NFTs 2021 in Figures
Digital revolution or speculative bubble?
Digital ID systems in Africa
Evaluating ten countries’ policies
According to a World Bank estimate, 500 million people in Africa lack official identity documents. Without them, many African citizens are excluded from basic rights and public services, including access to healthcare and immunisation, being eligible for cash or aid relief, or being able to vote. That is why the provision of a legal identity for all is one of the goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Efforts to improve national identification systems have coincided with the increasing deployment of mobile technology in Africa, just as elsewhere around the world. Digital IDs have become increasingly popular because of their relative ease, low cost and convenience compared to more analogue alternatives. However, their introduction carries risks, including the danger of exacerbating existing inequalities. In cooperation with local partners, two think tanks have jointly analysed and evaluated digital ID systems in ten countries in Eastern and Southern Africa.
The South African think tank Research ICT Africa and the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society examined various digital ID systems in ten sub-Saharan countries in 2020 and 2021: Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The research project aims to find out whether digital ID systems increase the opportunities for African citizens or whether they pose the risk of exacerbating digital inequality on the continent.
The evaluative analysis highlights, among others, the disorganised digital ecosystems, opaque public-private partnerships and the lack of a comprehensive strategic vision in many countries. It recommends that policy makers should focus both on adequate privacy protections as well as ensuring that no group of people are excluded, while not exacerbating existing inequalities. The authors emphasise the need to provide analogue or hybrid alternatives in order not to further widen social inequalities, not least because of the very different degrees of digitalisation both between and within the individual countries.
Read more in the study “Towards the Evaluation of Socio-Digital ID Ecosystemy in Africa” from November 2021. The authors summarise the reports’ findings in a series of blog posts.
Contributors to this issue:
Team KALUZA + SCHMID Studio, Bogdan Miftakhov, Johannes Sudau, Kristin Wesemann
Riaz, Ali. “How Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act Is Creating a Culture of Fear”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 9. December 2021.
No Space for Dissent: Bangladesh’s Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Online. Amnesty International, July 2021.
(10) van der Spuy, Anri, Vrinda Bhandari, Shruti Trikanad and Yesha Tshering Paul. Towards the Evaluation of Socio-Digital ID Ecosystems in Africa: Comparative Analysis of findings from ten country case studies. Research ICT Africa und Centre for Internet & Society, November 2021.