The Institute for Internet and Society Towards a Digital Future

Some 20 per cent of the population use the Internet intensively in their free time too.
Some 20 per cent of the population use the Internet intensively in their free time too. | Photo (detail): kristian sekulic © iStockphoto

The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society was founded on 25 October 2011. The society’s partners include the Humboldt University of Berlin, Berlin University of the Arts Berlin and the Social Science Research Centre Berlin.

Since Germany’s first email was sent in August 1984, the Internet has gradually conquered nearly every area of life. In business and politics, in our leisure time and in research – practically nothing functions without bits and bytes. A study by Initiative D21 found that some 20 per cent of the population use the Internet intensively in their free time too, to write texts, send emails and as a digital reference work, but also to play games or make and cultivate social contacts. 28 per cent are not keen on the Internet, however, and less frequently have their own Internet access.

It is here that the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society comes in. It aims to contribute to enabling all groups of the population to participate in and contribute to shaping the digitally networked future and to further develop a free, open Internet with all its great potential. This includes in particular the themes of innovation, Internet governance and policy, media policy, the philosophy of law and constitutional law, with great value being placed on cooperation between researchers, political decision-makers, civil society and private business.

Research into user behaviour

Dr Jeanette Hofmann of the Social Science Research Centre Berlin (WZB) is one of the directors of the Institute, an independent research centre based at the Humboldt University. A political scientist, she is carrying out research into the subjects of global governance, regulation of the Internet, information society and changes in copyright law.

“Most people equate regulation with government action, but for me the government is just one of the players involved,” she explains. “I am also interested, for example in how Internet service providers regulate users’ behaviour through contracts. In the field of the mobile Internet, they no longer have the freedoms they had with the stationary Internet. Users themselves do play an important role in the internet’s further development, however. They are a regulatory force in the sense that they accept or reject standards such as copyright regulations, for example. These regulations are often evaded in their current form. Or let’s take social networks such as Facebook. The users use Facebook to intervene against rules Facebook imposes on them.” For Dr Hofmann, users’ power to shape the Internet is a new, exciting field of research.

How public is the Internet?

Dr Hofmann has been studying the Internet for more than sixteen years. “What has always interested me personally is how the Internet is developing and what forces come into play. One of the things I look at, for example is the field of public domains. These are contents and software available for use and public distribution free of charge for which no copyright claims are made. The current debate on the subject, however, presents a completely distorted understanding of imitating and copying. Both of these things are not bad in themselves and are certainly important for there to be further development in industry and also in society, because they promote innovation.”

Independence and transparency

Dr Hofmann currently has to interrupt her research work frequently to give interviews. One of the questions often asked is about the involvement of Google, which is providing the Institute’s financing for the next three years. How, under these circumstances, will its independence be guaranteed? “Of course we will not allow ourselves to be bought,” says Dr Hofmann. “That is why we have made an institutional separation and have set up two companies – a funding company serves to finance our work, with the Institute as a research society determining the contents and aims. In addition, a scientific board critically supervises our work.” Lydia Horn, founder and partner of mobile melting gmbh, has no problems with Google. She estimates the connection to be “valuable for the Berlin start-up scene,” but also hopes “that Google will engage with the European humanist value system and understanding of law ”.

That also includes transparency. “We publish our research findings on the Internet, at events, in various bodies and also, of course, in the media,” underlines Dr. Hofmann and adds: “After all, we have a very alert and active internet community here, which is watching what we do with great interest.”