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Researching the Digital Revolution

Berlin is home to the new German Internet Institute launched by a consortium including Humboldt-Universität, Freie Universität, and Technische Universität Berlin.

Jun 15, 2017

Researchers at the new German Internet Institute in Berlin will study how digital technology changes society in its many different facets.

Researchers at the new German Internet Institute in Berlin will study how digital technology changes society in its many different facets.
Image Credit: pexels.com / CC0

Online services like Google, Facebook, and Instagram are free of charge. At least, that is what most users think. After all, nobody pays anything for using them. Axel Metzger, a professor of law at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, sees things slightly differently. “Anyone who registers with an online service is mostly a paying customer,” says Metzger. “Except that rather than paying money, they pay with their data.”

Metzger postulates that personal data can be a means of payment. This line of argument quickly leads to complex questions about our economic and legal order. What is the value of data? Where does that value come from? Is it something intrinsic to data, or does it only come into being when Internet companies process data? And what are the legal ramifications, say when consumers are dissatisfied with the service they receive in return for the data they provide? Can they then claim compensation? These and many other questions will be addressed by Metzger and his team of computer scientists, legal scholars, and social scientists at the newly established German Internet Institute.

How Does the Internet Affect Our Lives?

The research center, which was recently awarded to Berlin-Brandenburg in a national competition, has set itself a mammoth task: Studying how digital technology changes society in its many different facets. This involves how we live together in the Internet age, how we work, do business, practice democracy, and conduct international politics – to name just a few. The institute is trailblazing in its interdisciplinary approach, bringing together researchers from all four Berlin universities – Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität, Technische Universität Berlin, and Universität der Künste – with colleagues from the University of Potsdam, the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems, and the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is providing up to 50 million euros a year in funding for the first five years.

Strong Partners

Law professor Metzger is one of the new institute’s three founding directors. “We aim to take a holistic view of digitalization,” he says. “That will open up a wholly new area of knowledge.” His colleague Martin Emmer, communication scholar at Freie Universität, likewise sees the compelling case for an interdisciplinary approach. “The research questions have become so complex,” says Emmer, “that they are no longer capable of being answered by individual experts.”

The institute’s great strength is that it brings together a wide variety of disciplines on a permanent basis under a single roof. “That lets us go right down to fundamentals,” says Emmer. “How a democracy is able to function in a digital society is not a question that can be answered just like that with a small study.”

Shaping the Process of Digital Transformation

The technology expert among the founding directors is Ina Schieferdecker. The computer scientist is professor at Technische Universität Berlin and heads the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems. “My job as a technologist is to keep reminding colleagues that tech is not something that just happens,” says Schieferdecker. “It’s made by people – we shape it ourselves.” The German Internet Institute is therefore not only about understanding and analyzing the effects of the digital transformation, but will take an active part in shaping that process.

Alongside research, dialogue with policymakers and civil society will consequently be a major element of the Institute’s work. “We experience time again how policymakers are hampered by uncertainty when it comes to issues involving digitalization,” says communication scholar Emmer. “That is plain to see in the current debate about copyright reform and in dealing with hate comments on Facebook.” The Institute will support policymakers in this regard. This is less about getting involved in everyday politics than serving in an advisory capacity, Emmer says. “We want to provide a transparent basis for policy decisions, with science-based knowledge about complex issues.”

Digitalization can make life easier, more sustainable, and safer, says Schieferdecker. But the benefits also come with risks. “Our task is now to ensure that the benefits of digitalization go hand in hand with the maintenance of privacy, self-determination, and ethical standards. What we are concerned about is retaining control as citizens.”

The three founding directors are already hard at work getting the research center off the ground. The Institute is to be opened before the German elections in September. The first research groups will then start work this winter. “Our aim is to serve as a central point of contact on all issues relating to digitalization,” says Schieferdecker. “That’s an ambitious agenda, and a fantastic challenge.”