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.)

  • Well, that’s flawed logic. I don’t see anywhere in that article that said they gave the correct information. I often fill out those types of forms completely incorrectly.

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  • Webwombel


    your paradox logic is ridicolous and starts becoming annoying. We don’t want to give up our privacy, we don’t want to sell our privacy to large enterprices.

    It’s ok if companies (or individuals as lobbyists) make money with “less privacy”. And it’s ok if we defend our private data.

    Please stopp this anti-privacy opinion making.


    • Stop with opinion-making! My, that’s a generous, democratic sentiment.

      • Good sir, please step aside let me handle this for you.

        Dear Wombel,
        What may i ask is your concern?
        Should it be the data protection concern, then my approach would be to toss it aside. Let’s stay focused on security concerns.
        Jeff does not provide answers nor has he intended to provoke any debate other than about security concerns. Data protection does not belong in this thread. The debate is about security issues and Jeff Jarvis has clearly offered a solution by not letting data protection concerns get in the way of the security concern being discussed here.

    • Andy Freeman

      > We don’t want to give up our privacy, we don’t want to sell our privacy to large enterprices.

      Who is this “we” of which you write? Jarvis is pointing out that a lot of folks folks do want to give up their privacy, to sell it to pretty much anyone.

      If you don’t want to sell your privacy, don’t do it. However, why should your choice bind other people?

  • Locomotive Breath

    What Dave said.

    I’m 99 years old and live in Beverly Hills, doncha’ know.

  • Webwombel

    Before someone feels teaching me: yes, it’s “enterprises”, I know :)

  • My issue with these sorts of things is that I want to be told upfront what information is being given out. If I fill it in myself and I know on good authority that it is going somewhere, I don’t have a problem.

    As you’ve stated time and time again, being public certainly has its advantages, but I don’t want that choice to be chosen for me. I, personally, want to stay public, but that was my issue with Facebook; it chose for me. No one else even gave me the false sense that I had some things kept private.

    As a citizen, I’m willing to share information. I’m just offended if I am given the impression that it is a private matter.

  • “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?”

    Uh, this is way too big a topic to toss off so casually ;-)

    There are times the government should follow the people and there are times the government should lead the people. (Often the government does both quite poorly, I’ll sure as heck grant that.)

  • Andy Freeman

    > There are times the government should follow the people and there are times the government should lead the people.

    “should lead the people” suggests that there’s some way to figure out when to do so. Please elaborate.

    Yes, the people can be wrong, but what are the odds that a govt trying to lead will be better in those cases?

  • kit

    hey grandpa, leave that computer. who says they give correct information about their income away? this is no german paradox, this is your wrong american mind that makes you think such bull.

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  • DaveC

    The broad criticism of government trying to protect citizens from themselves is inconsistent with much of US policy. Perhaps youth is a special case, but from alcohol to the internet, Congress in its infinite wisdom continues to chose to protect children from themselves. Likewise with recreational substance abuse for adults. Also, access to prescription drugs is restricted in part to protect citizens from themselves. The argument that the government wastes its energy trying to protect citizens from themselves has not been persuasive to date, and it isn’t persuasive in this case.

    The government’s intent to protect citizen’s from themselves can be problematic. Its the details of the policy that deserve scrutiny though, not the off the cuff remarks of a flustered minister.


    I give out wrong information on online registrations probably half the time.

    Birth date, zip & gender are uniquely identifying for around 80% of Americans . [I know Jeff thinks that is a red herring, but I think the fact is greatly under appreciated.]

  • I am married to a German and we read this post together.
    In Germany the privacy policies are a little different than here anyway and so people do give out more information about themselves than someone would do here.
    One good example is writing a resume. Nobody here would talk about their parents, former marriages if applicable when writing a resume for a job application.
    Those are facts the Germans are used to add to their resumes because it is required.
    But now look at at some websites based and hosted here in the US. How many times have I seen forms they ask for way more information than they should just to sign up for an account.
    Do I provide the real information? No I don’t because certain things are just nobodies business but mine. But if I wouldn’t fill out the fields I might not get the account. So what, they want be lied to so they will get lied to. I could imagine it’s pretty much the same over in Germany. If a user doesn’t want provide the true info he or she will just make something up.

  • How odd and indecent some questionnaires may seem such as your example of German vita.
    I worked for large ad agencies in New York and in Frankfurt, and Vienna, Austria and felt hardly any difference in procedures except for differences in general behavior. I feel certain routines such as company policies, forms like the vita you mentioned are handled more professionally in Great Britain and the US. To all I know policies are made accessible to those interested and the company websites supply such information in the US and GB as a service to employees and off course to ensure standard procedures. here in Germany it is somehow taken for granted that each and everyone is familiar with requirements. On the other hand much is being handled and treated on a more personal individual level which also gives way to everyone making use of their own rules more or less.

    I am certainly interested in the outcome of this conversation and like to thank all involved for their interest and sharing. I’d be delighted to see privacy debates level out.

    The question is the following and I trust Jeff Jarvis has provided the answer in his early abstract. The proper question to respond to goes: What option protects our safety, publicness or privacy. How and if our data will ever be protected is a different question and must not get in the way of our safety protection.

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  • The Germans *love* being controlled and directed by the government. That’s no different to 1933… oh wait…

    They have “Gurtpflicht” which means that you have to use the safety belt while driving, or face a EUR 40 fine. Yes, it’s totally ridiculous because you don’t even remotely affect anybody else if you’re not using it.

    They also have streets paved with radar speed measurement towers. And you’ll never witness any single one of them sabotaged. When you talk to Germans about those, they’ll say “YES! ‘t was about time they installed that tower and finally catch those EVIL speeders!” (even though there’s no single house or other potential “victim” for speeding nearby).

    A bolivian friend once saw those towers and said: “Dude, such a thing wouldn’t exist a single day without being torn apart in Bolivia!”

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