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Politics and technology

June 25, 2010

Jimmy Schulz, a German MP, decided to give a speech - not from paper, but from his new electronic device. What happened next may change the way parliament does business.

The Apple iPad digital device
A little tablet PC has caused a ruckus in the German parliamentImage: DPA

Who would have thought that an iPad tablet computer would cause a parliamentary incident? Jimmy Schulz, a backbencher in the German Bundestag for the liberal Free Democrats, certainly didn't think so! That's why he thought nothing of taking his iPad to the podium to present a speech.

Perhaps, no one would have noticed, if his brand-new 3G device hadn't crashed in the middle of his address - for the whole world to see.

But, what turned out to be just a minor embarrassment for Mr. Schulz, now has the Parliamentary Rules Committee in the German Bundestag mulling the question of whether to allow digital devices, which until now had been banned.

Tradition versus the digital age

More traditional voices argue that things were never done that way before, or that it detracts from the dignity and gravity of parliament.

Jimmy Schulz, German MP
Schulz got more media attention than he bargained forImage: Jimmy Schulz/Christine Olma

Jimmy Schulz, on the other hand, told Deutsche Welle that even Chancellor Merkel and other members of her cabinet can be seen using their blackberries discreetly during a debate.

"Even if it's not allowed, most of us are doing it. And I was just the first one to use, well, a more appropriate media for that; a larger tool where you can read the things, and reply to emails better than what you can do with your smartphone," said Schulz.

It was a completely new situation for the young politician. He has never had so much attention. At the time he did it, he says, no one said anything. There was just some murmuring in the background. Most people, he thought, didn't even know what sort of device he was holding.

He admits that he had only purchased his iPad a few hours before his parliamentary address and wasn't really up-to-speed on how to use it. Since then, two weeks have gone by, and he says now it's really a great device to have.

"In fact, I use it as a digital briefcase or digital notepad. I have to carry lots of paperwork all day and I can get rid of most of the paperwork with that tool," Schulz emphasized.

iPad won't replace the personal encounter

Jo Groebel, director of the German Digital Institute in Berlin, fully agrees with Jimmy Schulz, and said that electronic devices are an acceptable tool for gathering information - as long as "that information can be regarded as reliable and valid."

German parliament
German Bundestag - Out with the old, in with the new?Image: AP

"What's the down side of the whole thing? To just omit parliament and just say let's do it electronically. Of course, that does take away a lot of personal contact, a lot of informal contact, a lot of face-to-face contact, which cannot be simulated with electronic devices," he told Deutsche Welle.

Groebel noted, however, that there is a major danger in doing everything digitally. "One never could be sure that the whole thing is manipulated, "he warned.

"One thing is that there is a person giving a speech, being there, being accountable and being able to be identified, and the other is, let's say, an electronic network, where you could never tell whether it has been manipulated or not," Groebel said.

Backbencher Jimmy Schulz hopes that the Parliamentary Rules Committee recognizes that at least the younger crop of lawmakers in the German Bundestag lives in the digital age.

The time has come, he says. But - somewhat sheepishly - he admitted that maybe next time, he'll memorize his speech.

Author: Gregg Benzow
Editor: Andreas Illmer