Posts about germany

Oh, those Germans

I was gobsmacked sitting on a stage in Berlin when the privacy commissioner for a German state erupted in an attack on Google—which, by the way, has the highest market penetration in Germany of anywhere in the world (97.4% there vs. 65.4% in the U.S.).

“As long as Germans are stupid enough to use this search engine,” he spat, “they don’t deserve any better.”

This from Thilo Weichert, privacy maven for Schleswig-Holstein, brought to the stage, with me, by the Green Party for a discussion about privacy last week, where we were joined by Renate Künast, head of the party’s delegation in parliament, and Konstantin von Notz, their MP overseeing matters digital.

Before I went to Berlin I asked why the Germans are so bonkers about Google and privacy. But now I wonder whether it’s the Germans or their media and politicians.

Witness that moment: Here a public official charged with representing and protecting the public so cavalierly—no, so hostilely—dismisses and insults his own constituents and thinks he should tell them what to do. I ask him what harm Google has done him. He has no answer. He complains that “Google uses information to manipulate me.” Any more than any marketer … or politician?

Weichert also stood on stage supporting the German government’s move to require digital ID cards with embedded RFID. The Greens don’t agree; they are worried about the card. But Weichert goes farther: He says the ID cards should be used to verify identity on the internet. Now he’s spooking *me* about privacy.

As I listen in German, I hear the card called an “Ausweis” and I shiver just a bit that no one seems to recognize the ghost in the word. In America watching war movies, there was never a more frightening phrase than “Ausweis, bitte” — “papers, please” (see this from Arizona). When I talk about going too far with privacy, Germans remind me about their Stasi and Nazi past. Yet here is the government instituting electronic ID with technology that makes some American go nutty if it’s attached anonymously to pants!

This is the other German paradox — or as someone said at the Re:publica conference in Berlin after my talk about publicness, this is the American paradox: Americans mistrust government more than Europeans even though we have arguably had better governments than they have. And we trust companies more than Europeans even though we have arguably had worse companies.

I heard much mistrust of companies — well, especially one company: Google — in Berlin. “Google is the worst example of openness and transparency and the willingness to serve the democratic needs of society,” Weichert said on stage. He had what seems to be a legitimate complaint, saying that Google refused to meet with him an other privacy commissioners. But then again, a friend in the audience this night was twittering with a Google public affairs person in Germany who was watching the event on the web and was wondering why he hadn’t been invited to respond. Nonetheless, it’s unquestionably the case that Google has a PR problem in Germany.

You’d think Google would be better at PR given that Weichert insisted the company’s decision to end its censorship in China was “nothing but a PR trick.” He went farther, equating Google as an unsurveilled surveiller with China and Iran! “Google’s only interest is to earn money,” he said, as if shocked. That was a theme of the night: Google dares to make money. A Green journalist in the audience complained that Google uses data “to sell me.” I asked what newspaper doesn’t do that. Google, he said, “misuses my data to become too big.” Show me the line marked “too big,” I asked.

So is Google’s problem hostility to business or to America? Weichert denied both. But he complained that “no secret service is more secretive than the Americans’.” (I suspect the CIA would take that as a compliment.) He said the U.S. is focused too much on freedom of information and openness and not enough on privacy.

There may be nascent anti-Americanism but I don’t think that’s the root of this. Is it a misunderstanding of the
ways of the new digital world? Perhaps. Künast, whom I found to be a reasonable politician, launched into an odd discourse on taking pictures of the Bundestag and whether, if those pictures are sold in a souvenir shop online, a share of the profits ought to go to the German people and government since they own the building. Eh?

Maybe the problem is the concept of the public and the idea of control over the public. Künast is talking about controlling ownership and use of what is public. Weichert’s talking about limiting what’s public in public; he gets mad at me mocking the German movement toward a “Verpixelungsrecht” — a right to be pixelated, even for buildings! Weichert says we should all default to private and I ask whether we should default to public. I think that publicness is defined by openness and a lack of restriction. When you diminish what’s public you take from us, the public. For we own what’s public.

There’s additional historical irony having this conversation in Germany, where Jürgen Habermas is credited with defining the concept of the public sphere, though in my book I’ll argue that Habermas corrupted an earlier concept of making publics — plural. The internet returns us to the idea of making public gives us all the power to do so — and I don’t want to see that taken for granted or taken away.

So I argue that we need to protect our tool of publicness. That’s what we should be talking about. There, at last, there is some agreement: to the need to have a discussion about a charter of rights online. I propose mine, knowing it’s inadequate. Künast says government should begin by legislating essential rights.

Well, OK, but I said on stage that, with all due respect, I didn’t want either government or business claiming dominion over the public’s tool of publicness, our internet. I called on John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace. I don’t want Google and Verizon carving up the internet like the Sudetenland without us, its citizens, at that table. I sure as hell don’t want Herr Weichert telling me how I should use his internet. I implore the crowd to take charge of this charter themselves.

If they don’t, if the internet gets locked down and cemented up, I fear it will look like this bunker that — oh, photographic irony — stands just outside the Heinrich Böll Foundation where we are speaking:

That’s a World War II bunker now owned by a millionnaire who built a penthouse on top and put an art gallery into the floors below behind doors that are opened for guided tours by appointment. The metaphor is too obvious even for an American.

What gives me some hope is that folks in the audience — digital folks — are fighting the good fight and they’re doing it with humor. Jens Best started a movement to shoot photos of all the pixelated buildings in Google Street View and link them to those addresses. And here’s a video (watch to the end) about the pixelated man:

At the start of the evening, Künast says that “freedom can comprise anonymity.” Yes, but freedom also comprises publicness. Publicness may be our highest right of freedom — to stand up and say what we think and be who we are and join together and act without fear of oppression. Surely, that should resonate here. That is just the sort of balancing discussion we must have so people know they have a choice and protect that choice. We need to protect their right to be private. But we also must protect the rights of the public.

I challenge Künast — who, rumor has it, may next become the mayor of Berlin (she says nothing) — to make the city a model of openness, a monument to the public and I suggest that her party should call a conference to begin discussion of our rights. Just make it our discussion.

: LATER: Thanks to Stecki in the comments, here is Weichert calling his constituents “dumm” (auf Deutsch) and my challenge (in English):

: LATER STILL: Here is audio of the event. Sorry that it’s a mix of German and English.

The German paradox, continued

The hard-on Germany has for Street View gets more ironic and amusing by the day. @larsan sent me a link to German newspaper story that points to all the others who open up even more data than Google. As best as I can translate, that includes:

* Deutsche Telekom’s online phone book let you search on someone and find an aerial view of the house from four angles and a view of the backyard — with, note well, personally identifiable information attached: name and phone number.

* The site Sightwalk has street-level tours of seven German cities, including parks. Knowing Germany, one could probably find naked people there.

* State governments not only take but sell detailed images of property, including monitoring for heat loss.

At the same time, the German government is rolling out mandatory ID cards with RFID tags embedded in them. ID cards sent Brits over the edge; they’d do the same here in the U.S, I’m sure.

But at least I’m starting to see some debate over Street View and privacy nuttiness; saner voices are, if not prevailing at least speaking. Mario Sixtus writes a wonderful column (in German) recounting the inane conversations he has with German friends about Street View. This column says the argument is typically German, that the fight against Street View has no real basis, and that this fight is bringing out the cultural divide between online and offline. This photographer is going to replace pixelated buildings in Street View with real pictures linked to the addresses (take that, fool!). This story points out that Street View has been around in other forms since 1948. And this column asks why Germany is irrational about Google.

That’s really the question: What is it that makes Germans go bonkers about Google? Is it media trying to gain an advantage against their competitor? Is is anti-Americanism? Is it some inner anti-capitalism? I’m serious. I can’t figure them out and I think they should sit down and try to figure themselves out. The Green Party of Germany invited me to come next month to talk about publicness and privacy and I can’t wait to hear their explanations.

In the meantime, the insanity continues. Church leaders are opposed to Street View, saying, “The world belongs to God, not Google.” Oy.

Privacy paranoia dramatized

The German Consumers’ Union—funded by the German government—has put out a video warning internet users about their privacy under a campaign called Surfers Have Rights. You don’t need to speak a word of German to get the gist:

(At the end, the text says: “You do this every day … on the internet.” And the shopper is asking simply, “Excuse me, where do I find…? The store clerk needs no translation.)

The German blog Netzpolitik thinks it’s a nice video. But Martin Weigert at Netzwertig has real concerns. The video “does but than spread distrust,” he says, arguing that even the most trivial data that “has the value of a dropped sack of rice in China” (must be an idiom) is made to seem drastically overvalued. The clip presents consumers as helpless, persecuted by their cohort. “What message does this convey? Mistrust everyone and everything.”

Hmmm. One would think that the German government would be somewhat sensitive to some irony there since, in earlier form, it was quite effective at making everyone mistrust everyone.

But the metaphor is hardly just German. Last week in Congress, Sen. Jay Rockefeller pulled out the overused trope that navigating the internet is like shopping in a mall, being watched in every move by “a machine” (very Orwell, that). The Byron Dorgen revealed a bit too much, I think, when he extended the metaphor to wonder whether, when going to the ladies’ lingerie department, onlookers would wonder whether you were really buying some for your wife or…. “That’s a really good analogy, I think, to what is going on on the Internet today,” said Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

No, it’s not. You are already being watched in the store. Stores have cameras watching you. They track what you buy via your credit card and frequent-shopper cards. They have floorwalkers and clerks who see what you buy. Fellow shoppers can see what you buy. So the hell what? So you like bananas. It’s a sickness in the mind of the beholder to imagine you doing something bad with the fruit.

The German clip and the Congressional “debate” reveal that the essential argument about privacy is too often purely emotional. You may — and do — go about your shopping every day feeling quite fine about it but here are government officials who want to creep you out. Government officials who have the power to creep us out in plenty of other ways. And now The Wall Street Journal is continuing the creep-out (odd, since they’d usually be the ones for business freedom against government regulation… hmmm).

In neither exposition is there any discussion of actual damage and actual danger, just nonspecific creepiness. Thus Netzwertig worries about the public’s attitude toward the internet and technology itself. I do, too. I will argue in my book that we need strong protection for privacy especially against bad actors — but I’ll go the extra step and try to define privacy and define the danger for unless we do that, all we’re doing is summoning boogeymen with warnings of nonspecific creepiness. And then I’ll argue that what we should be spending time understanding how this new world works and finding the opportunities in it because its progress is inexorable.

: LATER: Here’s an equivalent EFF video (in English):

I ask, what’s the great harm of giving me couch ads when I’m looking for a couch? Would I rather have bra ads when I can’t use them? Where’s the harm?

Disliking the public

There are those in the press and government who don’t like or trust the public they serve. It is an unliberal attitude–which can come from Liberals, by the way–for it doesn’t buy the core belief of liberal democracy that the people properly rule. Two classic examples:

Here we have a German government official saying that it is his job to protect consumers from themselves. In other words, they don’t know best; he does. Nevermind what they do — giving up private data on Facebook or giving Google the highest market penetration anywhere — he says they should do something else. And so he’ll use his regulatory power to change their behavior to his expectation.

And here we have a columnist for the Observer (aka Guardian), Will Hutton, who says in a fit of journalistic hubris that the BBC is “the last bulwark against populist government by the mob.” So the BBC is what protects the public from itself. He further says, “The bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics.” Which is to say that the press and government were unsullied and free of bile and unfairness until these damned bloggers (read: citizens with tongues) came along to corrupt them.

In both cases, we simply see members of a power structure threatened by the emergence of a public with its own mind and voice. We thus see the conflict that arises out of the rise of publicness. That’s one of the topics I’m thinking through as I write my book.

The German privacy paradox, continued

German researchers have found that—heated rhetoric about privacy aside—people are willing to give away personal information in exchange for a bargain. They’re even willing to give it away for nothing.

The Social Science Research Center in Berlin brought together 225 students at the Technical University there and offered them the chance to buy the same DVDs from two different online stores. Each store required the customers’ name and postal and email addresses. But one store also required date of birth and personal monthly income. That store also offered a one-euro discount on every item. Of 42 purchases made by this group, 39 opted to give away the additional personal information to get the discount.

What puzzled the researchers is that even when the discount was taken away, the two stores attracted equal business. “Thus the more privacy friendly firm failed to attract more customers even though prices were equal at both stores,” the study says (PDF here).

In spite of all of this, in a post-study questionnaire, 75% of the participants said they “have a very strong interest in data protection” and 95% said they “are interested in the protection of their personal information.” So they say one thing and do another. The rhetoric about privacy should perhaps be judged accordingly.

At the same time, German media and government are quite heated about privacy. The New York Times separately noted the irony that Germans by their actions don’t show such profound concern about privacy. To which a German government official who’s going after Google and Facebook told The Times that “his agency was trying to protect consumers from themselves.”

Whoa. Any time a government says it is trying to protect its citizens from themselves, beware. That is a government that is trying to get citizens to behave the way it wants them to behave, whether they want to or not. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what government should do? And beware media that keep telling the public what it thinks they should care about whether they care about it or not. They, too, are out of touch.

Yes, privacy matters. But we need to get past the rhetoric, past the heat, and examine what people really do, what risks they are really under, what benefits they pass up when they decide not to share. That’s what my book will examine.

(Here’s my presentation in Berlin on the German privacy paradox.)

Google’s German screw-up

Since some have asked — from media and Twitter — here’s my take on Google collecting too much data via its Street View car — not just wi-fi addresses but “payload data” that went over those networks:

Google fucked up.

It’s pretty much as simple as that. And their screw-up sure doesn’t help me when German media come to me asking how I can defend the Google they love to hate. I got a bunch of conspiracy-laden questions from a German reporter this morning: Google says it was a mistake and the reporter asks — not without betraying a considerable bias — “Is that really possible?” I responded: “Yes. Google is not perfect.” The reporter asked: “What will Google do now? Is there a chance to completely recover?” There’s wishful thinking in that question, eh?

Let’s analyze the situation: To what conspiratorial use could Google have possibly put a trace smattering of random data caught in one moment on a given street? I would challenge anyone to take that data and find a business purpose for it. In one second on one street in Hamburg one unknown user read a story on Focus.de. Yeah, so what?

Somebody fucked up. It was sloppy and stupid of them and sure doesn’t help their PR problem in Germany. But I struggle to see how this story shows anything more than that.

Well, it does show one thing: The bias that German media have toward Google. When I was at re:publica in Berlin, I got questions like these from many German reporters: “Isn’t Google too big?” they’d “ask.” Show me the law that defines “too big,” I responded. I contend that German media are merely jealous: Google understood how to make money online better than they did. And they are reflexively running to government to regulate it and can’t find a reason why. So when something like this screwup happens, they get their hopes up.

But this also shows how out of touch German media is with its audience on this point, for the German populace clearly does not mistrust and hate Google the way media do. They use Google more than just about any country on earth, giving Google search a 97.26% share of market. Was gibt? Was geht?

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Search Engine Market Share

Privacy, publicness & penises

Here is video of the talk I gave at re:publica 2010 in Berlin on The German Paradox: Privacy, publicness, and penises. (Don’t be frightened by the first moments in German; it’s just an introduction and a joke — with fire extinguisher — about how I had threatened to Hendrix my iPad on the stage in Berlin.)

My subject is all the more relevant given this week’s letter to Google with privacy czars in a handful of countries trying to argue that Google Streetview taking pictures in public violates privacy. In my talk, I argue that what is public belongs to us, the public, and efforts to reduce what’s public steals from us. Journalists should be particularly protective of what is public; so should we all. (The czars also argued, amazingly, that Google shouldn’t release betas. They come, you see, from an old world of centralized control — and the myth that processes can be turned into products, finished, complete, even perfect — instead of the new world of openness and collaboration.)

With so much discussion — even panic — about privacy today, I fear that we risk losing the benefits of publicness, of the connections enabled by the internet and our interconnected world. If we shift to a default of private, we lose much and I argue that we should weigh that choice when we decide what to put behind a wall — and there are too many walls being build today. But we’re not discussing the benefits of the public vs. the private. I want to spark that discussion.

I use Germany as a laboratory and illustration of the topic not only because I was there but because they have something nearing a cultural obsession on the topic of privacy. What’s true there is true elsewhere, including the U.S., though only to a different level. I also only skim the surface of the topic in this video; there is so much more to talk about: how publicness benefits the ways we can and now must do business; how it affects government; how it alters education; how it changes our relationships; how young people bring a new culture that cuts across all national boundaries and expectations; how it multiplies our knowledge; how it creates value; how it leads to a new set of ethics; and much more. But that’s for another time and medium.

In the talk, this all leads up to the Bill of Rights in Cyberspace, which is really about openness and protecting that.

At the end of my time on stage, I invited the room to continue the discussion next door in the sauna, Four guys did show up. Here’s the proof.

If you prefer, here is are my slides with the audio of my talk and discussion, thanks to Slideshare:

The coverage of the talk in German media amazes me. It made the front page of three papers and coverage in more and a prime-time TV show plus radio. Coverage included Welt Kompakt and Welt, Welt again, Berliner Zeitung, Berliner Zeitung again, Zeit Online covers the talk, then Zeit feels compelled to respond and start a reader-debate, Spiegel, the German press agency, the Evangelical News Service, Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Morgenpost again, Bild, Taggespiegel, taz, taz again, taz again, Berliner Kurier, Berliner Kurier again, 3sat, Süddeutschezeitung, BZ, Frankfurter Rundschau, business magazine WirtschaftWoche, L’Express in France, ORF TV in Austria, and more than one blog. And today add der Freitag. A week later comes an interview in the Berliner Zeitung.

Coverage of my re:publica talk

And here is a slice of an illustration of my talk by AnnalenaSchiller.com (who tweeted beforehand about having to draw a penis for the first time in her talk-illustration career) that appeared in the German paper Der Freitag this week:

derFrietag re re:publica

Yet more: Here’s an interview with dctp.tv in Berlin that summarizes my views:

: LATER: Penelope Trunk, who lives in public, writes: ” The value of your privacy is very little in the age of transparency and authenticity. Privacy is almost always a way of hiding things that don’t need hiding.. . . And transparency trumps privacy every time. So put your ideas in social media, not email.”

: AND: I just got a message on Facebook from the woman I talk about in the Sauna in Davos, the one I said was an American freaked by the mixed, nude crowd of sweaty Russians and me. She thought it was quite funny … especially because she’s French (living in America).

Tough love for media

Here in a bit more friendly video format is the keynote I gave to the Munich Media Days (in English) a week ago, which I linked to earlier. I decided to be blunt and tough and tell them I was worried about the protectionist talk I’ve been hearing from Germany and that they need to have hard discussions about the change that will waft over there from here. Carta also put up a transcript.

Jeff Jarvis: “Google is not an enemy, Google is a model” from Carta on Vimeo.