| Glossary | Politics & Regulation | Digital policy

Digital policy

Definition and delimitation

As a compound word typical of the German language, Latin Kompositum, digital policy can also be broken down and thus understood in different ways. Definition paths result at least in the direction of a (1) design or content dimension of the policy concept, namely when we speak of a policy of or for digitalisation. In addition, however, a resolution in favour of the (2) process dimension is also possible – then we are talking about digital policy in the sense of digitally transformed will-forming and decision-making processes. Finally, (3) an institutional understanding is also conceivable, namely when it is about the adaptations of political institutions and administrative modernisation (e-government or digital government) (Schünemann 2019). In fact, all three dimensions of the concept of politics – substantive, procedural and institutional, distinguishable in English as policy, politics and polity – resonate when digital policy is increasingly discussed in public, political and also academic debates (Greef 2020). This contributes to a certain blurring of the guiding concept.

For a clear definition that is also more sustainable beyond current transformation discourses, a concentration on the policy dimension is recommended. According to such a definition, digital policy is a policy field (in the making) – or a policy – and as such encompasses all aspects of the political handling and shaping of digitalisation and phenomena associated with it. In this sense, administrative modernisation or digitalisation phenomena in political communication can also move into the focus of digital policy, namely to the extent that they themselves become digital policy objects of regulation or reform.


Digital policy is a new name for a comparatively young policy field that is still in its nascent phase. The increased socio-political problematisation of digitalisation phenomena, the derivation of political design tasks and the discursive and increasingly also institutional bundling into a policy field characterise a development of the past ten to 15 years. In the process, the term digital policy has gradually replaced the term network policy, which was previously developed successively, at least in German, but is still recognisably in its tradition and is used largely synonymously alongside it. This change in the leading concept is an expression of a shift in discourse, according to which the socio-political treatment of digitalisation phenomena today focuses less on the networking dimension of the digital transformation and more on the possibilities for processing large volumes of data, in particular also through artificial intelligence systems and the associated datafication of persons, objects, relations and processes (Ritzi and Zierold 2019, p. 46). With a view to the fundamentals of the digital transformation, the two dimensions remain closely intertwined. Digital data processing and datafication as a social phenomenon are based on comprehensive information technology networking, both in terms of data generation, computational performance and network-economic service provision; conversely, the increasingly comprehensive range of applications of networked systems and data-economic product innovations are based on the progress of digital data processing and datafication. Accordingly, the two policy field designations also stand for development stages of the same problem area, whereby digital policy as a more contemporary term marks the current reorientation in the discourse.

Application and examples

Digital policy as a policy field is also becoming increasingly visible through institutionalisation. Since 2014, the permanent parliamentary committee Digital Agenda has been established at the federal level. In March 2018, the office of a Minister of State for Digitalisation was created in the Chancellery. Some federal states such as Bavaria or Hesse have already created digitalisation ministries. And a separate ministry is also being discussed at the federal level (for more detailed information on institutionalisation, see Greef 2020). The European Union has also been pursuing an ambitious Digital Agenda since 2010. So while digital policy increasingly appears to be an established policy field from an institutional point of view, a diffuse picture still emerges with regard to its concrete content, even when concentrating on the above-mentioned design dimension. In order to order the field, a distinction can be made between a digital policy microcosm and a macrocosm, following the introductory and research literature on so-called internet governance (Kleinwächter 2015; similar: Mueller 2010). The microcosm encompasses the political coordination of all those digital infrastructures, critical internet resources and technical standards that are needed to use the internet as a global information architecture, to enable global data flows and economies as well as distributed data processing and to keep them running. In contrast, the macrocosm contains or touches on a wide variety of social problem areas that are closely technically connected to the internet and digitisation or have been dynamically transformed by them. These include copyright, data protection, net neutrality, but also IT security, AI regulation or the fight against hate speech and disinformation.

Criticism and problems

The breadth and vagueness of the guiding concept are starting points for criticism and difficulties in application. It is true that digital policy, understood as a policy field in the making, is not an exception in principle with regard to content overlaps with other policy fields or changeability over time. But the range of topics touched upon by digital policy is comparatively wide – due to the comprehensive nature of the digital transformation. The mere designation as digital policy thus does not result in a clearly defined field of political regulation or academic research activity.

Digital policy also eludes classical notions and routines of politics in other respects, for example with regard to the actors involved, modes of regulation and effective law enforcement. Because of the non-state organisation of central institutions and processes in the microcosm of digital policy and the excessive demands on the state’s ability to shape many essential areas of the macrocosm, a policy approach focussed on the state and its hierarchical coordination and policy research oriented towards the state and state activity have never had a significant impact in connection with digital policy. Instead, perspectives decidedly associated with the governance model (Benz and Dose 2010) have predominated and continue to predominate to this day (Betz and Kübler 2013).


For over two decades, academic research on the entire spectrum of digital policy has been conducted primarily in law, and to some extent also in media studies, with a preponderance of US representatives. In contrast, political science and media and communication studies in Germany and other European countries, increasingly driven by new empirical methods from the digital or computational social sciences, have distinguished themselves more strongly through research on digitally transformed political communication processes (Jungherr 2015; Stier and Jungherr 2019). In addition, a research tradition on e-government and administrative modernisation has existed since the late 1990s, primarily in administrative science (Lenk 2004), but with the participation of other disciplines (Schünemann and Kneuer 2019; Kneuer 2016).

With the socio-political sensitisation to digitalisation phenomena and the corresponding institutional adjustments in the most recent decade, digital policy in the narrower sense defined here has also become the subject of work tailored to the policy dimension, for example in political science. Currently, at least four recent trends can be identified:

  • Firstly, the development of the policy field itself is the subject of research, whereby the discursive and institutional change in favour of network or today digital policy has been and is being examined in various ways. In this context, a predominantly definitional dispute about the quality of digital policy as a policy field in its own right is still discernible, with a static position, for example in Greef (2020), and a series of more dynamic conceptions based on discourse and field theories (Bergemann et al. 2016; Reiberg 2018).
  • Building on governance concepts appropriate to the subject matter, the regulatory actions and policy-making power of internet intermediaries, especially the large platforms, are receiving increasing attention across disciplines (Gillespie 2018; Katzenbach 2018). Specific modes of regulation closely linked to automated control techniques and datafication, such as so-called algorithmic or platform governance, have become research topics in their own right (Katzenbach and Ulbricht 2019; Flew et al. 2019; van Dijck et al. 2018). Novel approaches to media policy self- and co-regulation, also with the participation of civil society, raise significant questions, for example with regard to their effectiveness, legitimacy and political accountability, which need to be answered not least by academic research.
  • Thirdly, an upsurge of the state and renationalisation tendencies have also been observable for network and digital policy for some time (Möllers 2021; Schünemann 2021). They are also potentially reinforced by the increasingly thematised end of the digital policy restraint of liberal democracies (Farrell and Newman 2021). Thus, the focus of digital policy research on the online control techniques of autocratic and hybrid regimes, which has been a defining feature of comparative politics for a long time, is becoming precarious and needs to be expanded to include studies on democratic digital policy (such as Busch 2017) and cross-regime perspectives (such as Stier 2017; or already Timofeeva 2006).
  • Fourthly, research on digital politics is increasingly interested in global power constellations, including geopolitical questions of technological leadership or approaches to state or regional autonomy and sovereignty (for example in the fields of cloud systems, semiconductor development or artificial intelligence). The EU is also playing an increasingly prominent role as a research subject due to the governance innovations presented as part of its digital agenda (Schünemann and Windwehr 2020).

Further links and literature

  • Betz, Joachim; Kübler, Hans-Dieter (2013Internet Governance. Wer regiert wie das Internet? Wiesbaden: Springer VS (textbook).
  • Jaume-Palasí, Lorena; Pohle, Julia; Spielkamp, Matthias (eds.) (2017): Digitalpolitik. Eine Einfüh-rung. Berlin: Wikimedia Deutschland e. V. und iRights.international.
  • Mueller, Milton L. (2010): Networks and States. The Global Politics of Internet Governance. Cam-bridge, Mass. [et al:] MIT Press (Information Revolution and Global Politics).


Benz, Arthur; Dose, Nicolai (2010): Chapter 1: Governance – Modebegriff oder nützliches sozialwissenschaftliches Konzept?. In: Arthur Benz and Nicolai Dose (eds.): Governance – Regieren in komplexen Regelsystemen. Eine Einführung. 2., updated and ed. Ed. Wiesbaden: VS Verl. für Sozialwiss (Textbook, 1), pp. 13-35.

Bergemann, Benjamin; Hofmann, Jeanette; Hösl, Maximilian; Irgmaier, Florian; Kniep, Ronja; Pohle, Julia (eds.) (2016): Entstehung von Politikfeldern. Vergleichende Perspektiven und Theoretisierung. Results of the workshop on 25 November 2015. WZB. Berlin (WZB Discussion Paper, SP IV 2016-401).

Betz, Joachim; Kübler, Hans-Dieter (2013):Internet Governance. Wer regiert wie das Internet? Wiesbaden: Springer VS (Lehrbuch).

Busch, Andreas (2017):  Netzzensur in liberalen Demokratien. In: Aurel Croissant, Sascha Kneip and Alexander Petring (eds.): Demokratie, Diktatur, Gerechtigkeit. Festschrift für Wolfgang Merkel. Unter Mitarbeit von Wolfgang Merkel. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 331-352.

Dijck, José van ; Poell, Thomas; Waal, Martijn de (2018): The Platform Society. Public Values in a Connective World. New York: Oxford University Press.Farrell, Henry; Newman, Abraham L. (2021): The Janus Face of the Liberal International Information Order: When Global Institutions Are Self-Undermining. In: International Organization 75 (2), pp. 333-358. DOI: 10.1017/S0020818320000302.

Flew, Terry; Martin, Fiona; Suzor, Nicolas (2019): Internet Regulation as Media Policy: Rethinking the Question of Digital Communication Platform Governance. In: journal of digital media & policy 10 (1), pp. 33-50. DOI: 10.1386/jdmp.10.1.33_1.

Gillespie, Tarleton (2018): Custodians of the Internet. Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions that Shape Social Media. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Greef, Samuel (2020): Digitalpolitik. In: Tanja Klenk, Frank Nullmeier and Göttrik Wewer (eds.): Handbuch Digitalisierung in Staat und Verwaltung. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, pp. 463-474.

Jungherr, Andreas (2015): Analyzing Political Communication with Digital Trace Data. The Role of Twitter Messages in Social Science Research. Online edition. Cham: Springer International Publishing (EBL-Schweitzer).

Katzenbach, Christian (2018): Die Regeln digitaler Kommunikation. Governance zwischen Norm, Diskurs und Technik. Wiesbaden: Springer VS (SpringerLink Bücher).

Katzenbach, Christian; Ulbricht, Lena (2019): Algorithmic Governance. In: Internet Policy Review 8 (4). DOI: 10.14763/2019.4.1424.

Kleinwächter, Wolfgang (2015): Internet Governance Outlook 2015. Two Processes, Many Venues, Four Baskets.

Kneuer, Marianne (2016): E-Democracy: A New Challenge for Measuring Democracy. In: International Political Science Review 37 (5), pp. 666-678. DOI: 10.1177/0192512116657677.

Lenk, Klaus (2004): Der Staat am Draht. E-Government und die Zukunft der öffentlichen Verwaltung – eine Einführung. Berlin: edition sigma.

Möllers, Norma (2021): Making Digital Territory: Cybersecurity, Technonationalism, and the Moral Boundaries of the State. In: Science, Technology, & Human Values 46 (1), pp. 112-138. DOI: 10.1177/0162243920904436.

Mueller, Milton L. (2010): Networks and States. The Global Politics of Internet Governance. Cambridge, Mass. [et al:] MIT Press (Information Revolution and Global Politics).

Reiberg, Abel (2018): Netzpolitik. Dissertation. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

Ritzi, Claudia; Zierold, Alexandra (2019): Souveränität unter den Bedingungen der Digitalisierung. In: Isabelle Borucki and Wolf J. Schünemann (eds.): Internet und Staat. Perspektiven auf eine komplizierte Beziehung. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 37-59.

Schünemann, Wolf J. (2019):  E-Government und Netzpolitik – eine konzeptionelle Einführung. In: Wolf J. Schünemann and Marianne Kneuer (eds.): E-Government und Netzpolitik im europäischen Vergleich. 2. Ed. Baden-Baden: Nomos-Verlag, pp. 17-49.

Schünemann, Wolf J. (2021): Aufwärtskompatibel? Zur Bedeutung struktureller und doktrinärer Nationalismen für die digitale Konstellation. In: Z Politikwiss 33 (2), p. 122. DOI: 10.1007/s41358-021-00285-0.

Schünemann, Wolf J.; Kneuer, Marianne (eds.) (2019):E-Government und Netzpolitik im europäischen Vergleich. 2. Aufl. Baden-Baden: Nomos-Verlag.

Schünemann, Wolf J.; Windwehr, Jana (2020): Towards a ‘Gold Standard for the World’? The Euro-pean General Data Protection Regulation between Supranational and National Norm Entrepreneurship. In: Journal of European Integration, pp. 1-16. DOI: 10.1080/07036337.2020.1846032.

Stier, Sebastian (2017): Internet und Regimetyp. Netzpolitik und politische Online-Kommunikation in Autokratien und Demokratien. Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden (Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft).

Stier, Sebastian; Jungherr, Andreas (2019): Digitale Verhaltensdaten und Methoden der Computational Social Science in der politischen Kommunikationsforschung. In: Jeanette Hofmann, Norbert Kersting, Claudia Ritzi and Wolf J. Schünemann (eds.): Politik in der digitalen Gesellschaft. Zentrale Problemfelder und Forschungsperspektiven. Bielefeld, Berlin: transcript; Walter de Gruyter GmbH (Politics in the Digital Society, 1), pp. 309-325.

Timofeeva, Yulia (2006): Censorship in Cyberspace. New Regulatory Strategies in the Digital Age on the Example of Freedom of Expression. 1. Ed. Baden-Baden: Nomos (Schriften zur Governance-Forschung, 6).