Manuel Höferlin left his first digital traces back in 1993 in the early days of the WWW. Back then, as a law student, the now 49-year-old was hanging out in Usenet groups, where he exchanged ideas with like-minded people about technical details of the Internet. At the time, Höferlin set up one of the first legal web servers at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, “something they didn’t think a lawyer could do,” he says.
Höferlin was fascinated by the feeling of being directly and quickly at the source of new information via the Internet. At NASA, he downloaded images back then without knowing what they would show. “Getting information quickly thanks to the Internet is something I still find incredibly exciting today.” It was then that he clearly became aware of the huge opportunities associated with digitization.
While still a student, the Rhineland native went into business for himself, founding an IT consulting company, which he managed until 2009. Working as a normal lawyer was soon out of the question for him. “Back then, I had a lot of fun digging into all the technical stuff myself,” he says.
Sprint through politics
He came to politics relatively late, as a 32-year-old in 2005. Back then, when the red-green coalition failed, he saw the moment had come to show his political colors. He joined the FDP. “I was fed up with the government and wanted to join a party that was on the side of business and stood up for civil rights – including in the digital space.” The second red-green Schröder government, with Interior Minister Otto Schily, had introduced massive surveillance legislation in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
After a sprint through local and state politics in Rhineland-Palatinate, Höferlin was first elected to the Bundestag in 2009. Until 2013, he acted as part of a digital policy trio of deputies who pushed the issues in the FDP parliamentary group. With the failure of the FDP to clear the five-percent hurdle, he was not represented in the 18th Bundestag but moved back there in 2017. From 2019, he took over the chairmanship of the Digital Agenda Committee there after Höferlin’s longtime companion Jimmy Schulz passed away after a long battle with cancer. Höferlin, who comes from the same state association as Digital Minister Volker Wissing, had to tremble in the last Bundestag election: It was not clear for a long time on election night that the digital policy expert would actually be a member of the 20th Bundestag.
In this legislative period, he is a full member of the Interior Committee and a substitute member of the Digital Affairs Committee. There is no shortage of overlapping topics: From data sharing and administrative services in the public sector to cybersecurity and data protection, both committees are also relevant for precisely those topics that have long been on his mind. Industry representatives regret that Manuel Höferlin did not become a parliamentary state secretary in the digital ministry. But a Rhineland-Palatinate minister with Rhineland-Palatinate state secretaries, that is hardly possible in political Berlin.
Digital policy as domestic policy
Manuel Höferlin describes himself as a “fighter for digitization”. One of his heartfelt issues is a secure digital communication and a free Internet without state surveillance. “I want citizens to be able to travel in a self-determined manner in the digital world as well,” he says. He, therefore, also sees digital policy as domestic policy, and unlike the digital minister, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser does not come from his own party.
Above all, Manuel Höferlin is currently concerned about the extent to which citizens are monitored by the state in the digital space. He said that individual measures, such as data retention or source telecommunication surveillance, were being discussed again and again. But the overall picture of state surveillance on the Internet is still diffuse. “This is where we as the FDP would like to draw up a balance sheet for the first time with the overall surveillance account,” says Höferlin, “because there is currently no such thing.” The mandate to do so was written into the coalition agreement by the traffic light negotiators. Höferlin is one of those who are fundamentally skeptical about new data retention regulations at the European level.
He has not lost his technological view of political content; he still wants to think through and understand everything in detail first when he has to negotiate something politically. “This expertise has always helped me politically,” he says. As a balance to the abstract topics full of zeros and ones, Höferlin does some beekeeping in his spare time. “That grounds me,” he says. His other passion is flying: He was finally able to fulfill this old childhood dream a few years ago with his private pilot’s license. Adrian Meyer