Web Index warns against online ignorance | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 25.11.2013
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Web Index warns against online ignorance

Germans prefer to amuse themselves on the Internet rather than use it for more serious pursuits, according to the results of the latest Web Index. The 2013 edition of the study ranked Germany in 16th place.

Checking the weather forecast first thing in the morning, sending emails and searching Google throughout the day, and watching a favorite series in the evening: For many Germans, the Internet is a constant companion in leisure and work.

But the Internet also offers potential for many people to become politically active, as pointed out in the recently published Web Index 2013. The Arab Spring illustrated how social media, blogs and personal websites can bring like-minded people together and shine a spotlight on abuses.

The report, published on Friday (22.11.2013), measures the Internet's contribution to development and human rights in 81 countries worldwide. In this year's ranking, Germany ended up in 16th place for the country's internet activity relating to political development and human rights - well behind Sweden, which took the top spot. The report was released by the World Wide Web Foundation, started by Tim Berners-Lee in 2009. Berners-Lee is considered a founding father of the World Wide Web.

LOLcats instead of activism

"Germany comes off especially badly in social areas such as, for example, environmental policy," said Jeanette Hofmann, director of the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, speaking with DW. She added that political organizations have not been taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet.

Monika Taddicken - Universität Hamburg Institut für Journalistik und Kommunikationswissenschaft

Taddicken: the Internet's potential to mobilize users is being wasted

In private, Germans are also rather passive with their online activities. "Interestingly, countries like Indonesia are far ahead of us in this respect," said Hofmann. According to the latest estimates, less than 10 percent of Germans use the microblogging service Twitter. "This shows that we are still rather hesitant when it comes to new digital applications," said Hofmann. Twitter - which can also be used a means of political expression - is rarely used for that purpose in Germany.

Monika Taddicken, of the Journalism Institute at the University of Hamburg, agrees. "A few years ago, it was hoped that the Internet would have a strong potential to politically mobilize users," she said. Some expected that social platforms like Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter would reshape political dialogue by offering direct contact with politicians or discussion groups. "But this hope has proven unfounded," said Taddicken.

Instead of actively engaging with politicians in their own cities, many Germans prefer to click on the latest animal videos or vacation photos. Many also look for direct contact with other people, added Hofmann, favoring a personal meeting with the local party representative rather than engaging in a discussion on Twitter, even though the two are not mutually exclusive.

Fear of censorship?

The Web Index also drew out a number of paradoxes when it came to surveillance and censorship. According to the study, developing countries tend to be more likely to censor and filter Internet content. By contrast, almost everything is theoretically allowed in the rich industrial countries. Nevertheless, for fear of surveillance, citizens there tend to limit themselves.

Taddicken, on the other hand, does not believe that Germans are censoring themselves. Despite the NSA spying scandal and revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden that have dominated headlines for months, she believes Germans still continue to behave essentially the same online.

"Privacy concerns already play an important role on the Internet, but it's not really clear how to [avoid the spying]," said Taddicken. The public does not know exactly what happens to the collected data - which is why many have continued with their online activities as if nothing had changed.

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