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.

  • Poor Jeff. But thanks for fighting that stupidness of Mr. Weichert. The (German?) problem is: give power – even if it’s only administrative – to the wrong people and you get such a labyrinth of strange errors, just for demonstrating that power.

  • Jeff,

    I was only able to watch the second half of the live stream, but your blog post resonates what I thought of that discussion. Many Germans do mistrust American corporations that make money, and I think your assertion of some underlying anti-Americanism here is right. There is also a schizophrenic fear of being “americanized” (“amerikanische Verhältnisse” is actually a swearword in broad circles). At the same time most people won’t even consider using alternatives to Google search. If Google was German and was properly paying taxes here, the sentiment towards Google might be different.

    >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.<

    You got that exactly right. I doubt that the average person asked this day on the street about his views on streetview knows what it's really about (there's still this notion of live cameras), but the samwe people will tell you why they are adamantly against it – thanks to relentless indoctrination by mass media, and not only the tabloid "Bild".

    About Thilo Weichert: I took part in a radio discussion with him two weeks before the Böll event. He used the exact same phrases and gave no answers to the same questions. So don't take it personal ;-)

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  • Alex

    Oh Jeff, thanks for bringing our Nazi past back to the table. Don’t have any arguments better than that?

    • Obviously Jarvis’ point is everything else than Germanys Nazi past.
      I would rather like to hear at least one single argument from Thilo Weichert which is a little more than “Somehow I am afraid of Google, they have so much money and want to earn even more!”


    • I wasn’t the one who brought it up that night: Weichert and Künast did. I find it is always brought up by Germans — not me — in this discussion. But the empowering of government with digital ID, well, isn’t that reminiscent of something….?

      • Alex

        after having read the latest blog posting)

        1) The difference ist that Germans bring up the topic is that we feel we have to be very careful whenever one gains too much control. Germans are very sensitive about it, regardless of if that’s a good thing or not.

        2) On the other hand you were referring to the German word for ID card (Ausweis/Papiere) and said it reminded you of the Nazi past. That to me is in no way related to the discussion itself.

        3) In this very blogpost you did not mention that the “Nazi-topic” was mentioned by Weichert/Künast.

        4) Thanks for using our ü, ö, and ä. :-)

        • Alex, It’s not just the word ‘ausweis’ but the reality of it: government control of identity. it’s only more ironic because of the history of both the card and the word.

        • Alex

          now you added some meaning to it. I really must say I have less problems with the gov. knowing my address etc. compared with a private organization based in a country that I have no jurisdiction for.

        • Indeed, Alex, why shouldn’t Germans have some concern about what an enormous company based in California might do with their data?

          Especially when the CEO of that company has made flip comments about privacy in the past, when the company has been found to be improperly gathering individuals’ wireless network data while photographing their homes, and now several employees have now been alleged to have been improperly accessing customer data for potentially criminal purposes.

          None of these are necessarily evidence of evil intent on the part of the company but they are an argument for checks and balances. Why shouldn’t a German government official express concern about these risks and indeed act to protect his constituents?

          And if there is an overreaction, sometimes that’s necessary in order to get an appropriate response from the company in question. Sometimes you need to start at unreasonable to get to reasonable.

        • Oh, my, Evan, I thought you were a capitalist.

        • Ha, Jeff, well I’ve been in the UK long enough now that some Americans might consider me a socialist. Of course lately it seems some Americans think Barack Obama is a socialist.

          But seriously I think in 2010 we are all living with the consequences of a lack of regulatory oversight of various industries. We all know what happened to the concept of markets being able to self-regulate.

          So perhaps I’m actually an old-school capitalist, who believes that thoughtful regulation can actually result in better markets, more responsible businesses and happier customers who feel safer and more secure.

        • Andy Freeman

          > But seriously I think in 2010 we are all living with the consequences of a lack of regulatory oversight of various industries.

          What are you babbling about? The US financial system almost went down because of the way housing mortgages were regulated. US Govt regulators “encouraged” bad loans.

  • Good luck Jeff, I’ve resigned from tilting at windmills many years ago…

  • stk

    The whole discussion suffered under this discrepancy between giving up privacy to the state as opposed to giving up privacy to, well, anybody else but the state.

    Google pretty much served as a straw man, and I deeply regret just sitting there and not asking Weichert why he believes that Google — and everybody else — should have to disclose everything they do with the data, while the government — which you can’t opt-out that easily from, and which yields _far_ more power — negotiates agreements like ACTA and INDECT in total secrecy.

    Maybe we should completely ignore the Google question for a while. It appears to only distract from the real issues.

  • Hi Jeff, was this discussion taped and is it available online?

    • You wouldn’t want to see it. I was watching the live stream and was totally disappointed. None of the participants made sense and the questions from the audience were pure slapstick. This summary of Jeff is much more insigthful.

  • TinCup

    Yeah, well, “Ausweis” ist the German word for ID / papers, what are we supposed to do? Find a new word for it only because it makes some people abroad uncomfortable? Sheesh…

    As for the quality of our respective governments, I must say you win by a very thin hair. Okay, Hitler is hard to top when it comes to the lunatic fringe, but I’ll take Brandt, Schmdt, Kohl, hell – even Schroeder or Merkel any day over Johnson, Nixon, Carter or the Bush Junta.

    • It’s the history of the word: empowering government to demand identity anywhere and just read it without permission, even. I’m the publicness and technology optimist and enthusiast but that freaks *me* and you’d think — given German history, which is so often brought up in this conversation — it would freak them. Some not. Not Weichert.

      • you’re getting the wrong picture here. nobody can demand identity anywhere and read it without permission in germany. i am not obliged to have my ID with me all the time. in fact, i haven’t had it with me for at least 2 years since i ordered a new one which is still at the administrative office where i ordered it. so even tho the word is the same, the concept behind it is different.

        • Marcel,
          Isn’t it a short step when everyone is required to have one. Mind you, I”m not usually the paranoid one but this is enough to make me convert. And in any case, if Germans are so strong about privacy in other contexts, not this one … with government? That’s the point and paradox.

        • i am really curious why you feel this is a particularly german paradox when pretty much every american has a social security number and a driver’s licence, which combined are pretty much the same thing combined like our ID. you’re especially forced to have a social security number to work (question: does this social security number lead to a dataset with basic information like name, adress and so on?).

          german ID does only hold this basic information which pretty much every government and more specifically government services need. there’s nothing more to it.

          the RFID part of the ID of course is on a whole other level and believe me, there are many people concerced about that

        • meant “concerned” in the last paragraph

        • Well, yes, it’s the chip that does take it to the next level. And my reaction is as much to the German reaction as to the card itself, particularly to Weichert, who rails against anyone giving any data to any company but then aggressively endorses this. That’s what amazes me. But then, he does.

        • well, to be fair, the rfid chip doesn’t hold more information than the “regular” ID now does. it is planned to be used for identity confirmation when using govenmental services ove rthe internet. you’re in now way forced to use it. the real issue here is it’s security and not privacy per se.

          but to get back to the paradox you observed. german as i feel it are not particularly concerned about things like name and address. they’re more concerned about things that go beyond this basic level. and this includes both private and (imo the emphasize is here) public/ governmental sector. politicians are pushing the private sector to make it seem to be the bigger issue but mostly to hide their own agenda.

      • A *minimal* ID card is probably the lesser evil compared to abusing other methods to prove one’s identity when that is needed (e.g. for opening a bank account or registering one’s car). In countries without ID card, driver’s licenses, SSN etc. are used for that – but it is not the bank’s business what kind of car I’m allowed to drive and vice versa.

  • Alex

    …and now you’re on Rivva so expect a whole lot more Germans to join this. ;)

  • “In America watching war movies…”

    you do realize, just how ridiculous this sounds? as tincup mentioned “personalAUSWEIS” is just the german term for our ID.

    but to the matter at hand, unfortunately, whenever you are in Germany to speak on a stage or something similar, it seems you are always getting just one part of the whole debate. there is not only opposition to private companies and their use of our data but also an opposition to plans of our and other european governments to gather even more data from us and working with it. last saturday there was a big demonstration in berlin against plans such as the new ID with an RFID chip in it, or things like INDECT, ACTA and other possibly oppressive instruments.

    so no, at least that part of “ze Germans” that you’d call part of the digital world and that actually understands what is going on does not only mistrust companies but also the government. there is no paradox there.

    as somebody else mentioned, Street View and Google per se are just Straw Men used by politicians to fake some sort of activity for those who are not familiar with technology, which is still a huge part of the populace even though they might be using the internet regularly. street view won’t be an issue at the end of the year anymore and we will hopefully get back to the real issues…

  • Well, the point is: If you put (or someone else put) the wrong information about me to public, they cannot only be abused; I can bet on it, they will be abused. As we said in the open discussion: I must keep control (and there is the control again) about my data. In fact, it is almost impossible today to do so.

    About the German paradoxon, as you call it: The problem here, as I see it, is that you say “the Germans”. There are those who give away private information without thinking (e.g. on Facebook), and others, who don’t and warn about doing so.

    A lot of (most?) people don’t think about what they give away with their data. And the most never learned about the problems — until their bank account is emptied by someone else, they get fooled with phishing, or they don’t get a job because of talking about a disease in a forum without anonymity. The key word is media competence, and still we don’t learn it (something I wanted to ask you about how this is in American schools, but time was already up).

    In 1987, a teacher in a vocational school always liked me to solve crossword riddles in his lessons — because when I listened I sometimes told him where he was wrong. Although I had only the best marks. ;-) OK, that was years before the internet had today’s meaning.

    But now, in 2010, I ask pupils of Gymnasien (secondary high school), what they learn in “Informatik” (informatics or computer science), and they tell me: Oh, Delphi in the earlier years, later Java. And their school’s internet access is blocked harder as in Iran! The clever ones build open vpn tunnels over port 80, the rest gets a bad break. I guess this “rest” will be the next generation who puts private data to public.

    I agree with you about Thilo Weichert talking about the “dumbness” of people. I really thought: And why does he do that job? And what for? He has had my respect for his work before, but after this evening I doubt he earns it.

    Greets from paradox Germany ;-)

  • Here is the relevant part in which Thilo Weichert calls the Germans stupid and Jeff Jarvis replies billiantly:


  • alex

    Actually, those two paradoxes are not paradoxes at all.

    It’s just the other way round:

    Germans / Europeans had and still have bad governments because they always trust them.
    And in the US you had and still have bad companies because they always trust them.

    It’s as easy as that.

    And Thila weichert is just the perfect example why it is so easy as a politician to turn germany into a police state. Because whatever the government does – everyone believes it’s for the good of the people.

    • I popped on to say almost exactly the same thing, Alex:

      “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.”

      Jeff, it’s not a paradox, it’s cause and effect. In both cases, the institutions under closer scrutiny from the public are the institutions that perform better.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Germans / Europeans had and still have bad governments because they always trust them.
      > And in the US you had and still have bad companies because they always trust them.

      Actually, we don’t trust them all that much. However, we have figured out that companies are far less likely to kill us.

      Google can’t force anyone to do anything. Govts can.

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  • Heiner

    Bin ich froh, daß ich in Deutschland lebe. :-) Wo die sog. amerikanische Freiheit ist, werde ich vermutlich nie verstehen…

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  • Google_using_German

    Dear Jeff Jarvis, although I normally agree about the worries about Google and Google Street View here in Germany being a strange overreaction I still feel very uncomfortable about this blog post of yours.

    First of all why do you have to use a headline like “Oh those Germans” like all people in Germany have problems with Google Street View, I personally really fell insulted by this?
    At least you mentioned that all this negative talking about Street View “might” be coming from the medias but I think for someone like you who says to know Germany and should understand medias this should be obvious.
    Of course for people like us it is clear that Street View does not hurt anyones privacy but for the average person not just in Germany who are not into technology like us it might not be, they probably never heard of Street View before and when they now the first time hear about this from the medias who report about this in a critical way they quickly might come to a conclusion that it is something to worry about.
    People often have the wrong idea and no idea how Street View works, many believed that it is some kind of live broadcast from their home instead of a simple photo.
    The fact that most people use Google for search like you mentioned should make it clear also to you that most people here hold no grudge against Google at all, if someone has it might be the media but I think they just found a nice topic for filling the Sommerloch (summer slump).

    Of course the way some medias here report about Street View is not ok and I totally agree, but please don’t make it sound with such a head line and sometime also on TwiG where you talk about “the Germans” people here generally don’t like Google, again by their market share in search it should be clear that people DO like Google.

    Secondly please don’t even in an article about Google make strange references to the Nazi history, me, even my parents and all my friends weren’t even born when these terrible events happened and I am really getting tired answering questions or even talking about this, especially to people from the US for reasons I don’t understand. Makes me feel a little disappointed to read something like that from you, I thought at least you know better…
    But to make things clear, an ID Card in German is called an “Ausweis” or more clearly “Personalausweis” (personal ID Card). It always has been called like that and is being called “Ausweis” right now (the not yet electrical one). If you have to shiver when hearing that word it is your problem and only yours, I don’t see any reason though.
    The new ID Card will have a chip in there to make it usable on the Internet so that maybe in the future people can use it to open a bank account online and making buying/selling things more secure but these new features will be totally optional and never the government will see when or how people use it and buy things with it.
    If I should feel worried about that thing I don’t even have to get it, if you have a passport in Germany you don’t need to get an ID Card, the passport is a good enough alternative to show and prove who you are.

    Again, I generally agree to what you think but please choose your words a little more careful.

  • Max from germany

    First of all, I really don’t think it it necessary to pull the “Nazi-card” too often. And all these little hints like “bunkers” and “Ausweis bitte” – come on? Realy? You can do better than that!
    Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of points that I would agree with but I can’t help myself getting the feeling that You are a little too pro-Google at some others! As a free society (in which i’m living in) it is our daily duty to question every aspect of it again and again. And if one single company (97,4% market-penetration) comes form abroad (no anti-americanism here!) and gathers informations of almost every aspect of our lifes – its nothing wrong with asking “who is allowed to collect data about who and which permissions can be aked for”.

  • GutGab

    Another german name for “Ausweis” is “Internetführerschein”. Internet driver license.

    • tobetop

      no, it isn’t!

  • Jeff, thanks for this insightful report of the discussion, and thanks for some very important statements – the idea of governments controlling the Internet (instead of or together with companies) is frightening indeed, and I totally agree that we need to tackle the blurring boundaries of “public” and “private” – especially when “public” in the sense of “accessible for a lot of people” and “public” in the sense of “of interest to/relevant for a lot of people” is not necessarily the same thing anymore. That “unbundling” of publicness is, to me at least, at the heart of a lot of the current conflicts and discussions.

    Having said that, I have two issues with your comments.
    First of all, Thilo Weichert (and his other colleagues as “Landesdatenschutzbeauftragte”, the federal state comissioners (??) for data protection) is indeed a “public official” – in the sense that the office is part of the respective state “constitutions”. However, the people holding the office are independent, not bound to state or federal directives, and only responsible to the law (not the government!). I’m not sure if you wanted to imply otherwise, but at least some commentors seem to misunderstand the position of his office.

    Second, you state at one point of your post, citing Weichert: ““Google’s only interest is to earn money,” he [Weichert] said, as if shocked. That was a theme of the night: Google dares to make money.”
    The interesting difference between your sentence and Weichert’s statement is the little word “only”. Of course most, if not all people (and Thilo Weichert as well, I guess) know and understand that Google wants and has to make money.
    The critical point is wether we believe that it’s ok for a private company to profit from data/information that is public, including pictures of the public space.
    That’s probably up to individual judgement, and might even be a cultural difference between the US and Germany, but (with very broad strokes) I’d like to live in a society where the public is neither controlled by the government nor by private companies.

  • Thorsten

    In my personal opinion that whole controversy about streetview is absolutely ridiculous because (again in my personal opinion) it is based on two seriously annoying phenomenons in media and politics.

    the one in the media is: scaring people! i don´t now if its that commonly used in other countries but it appears to become more and more popular here in german news magazines especially in those “yellow press” kinda news tv shows (i don´t if they have a name of their own ^^). Scaring people seems to sell quite good. (Sometimes I wonder how i´ve managed to become 24 with all that dangers outside.)

    the phenomenon i see in politics is (and again my personal opinion) is actionism there have to be laws, regulations or whatever ASAP whether they are sensible or not is optional. The sense in those laws can be sold to the people (maybe by using the media to scare the poop out of them? we´ll probably never find out)

    I personally just find it annoying.. and hypocritical of the government since the government itself is the biggest “Datenkrake” (Datakraken?) there is speaking of the ID and the “Vorratsdatenspeicherung” (i don´t assume there is an english word for that)

    http://www.harmbengen.de/toonpool/2010%2008%2015%20streetview_943425.jpg (another aspekt that makes the whole discussion ridiculous … do i have to mention again that it´s my opinion? ^^)

  • Failure to Communicate

    I agree with Marcel’s post. I, german, am not concerned about my basic data like DOB, address, name and such being recorded. They are in my birth register anyway.

    It is the more invasive privacy issues that concern me. Whether they are perpetrated by my government or not. Such as customer reward programs, tracking software etc. Google knowing what I search for is irrelevant, as realistically speaking privacy without additional tools and methods to achieve it does not exist on the internets anyway.

    As for the rfid chip in my passport and ID-Card: The american government has required that passports are to be chipped and electronically readable, the ID card is something our politicians came up with themselves. Neither are a necessity, and can be disabled easily, without losing their validity.

    You will lose the ability to travel to the US of course, but who would want that?

  • First off all, can we please let the nazis peacefully burn in hell? K thx :-)

    German politicians are like many others in nature. They understand a bit about everything, but nothing in full. Same thing with our industry leaders and DAX-CEOs.

    The Internet at first was a blank area for them, and now, as they slowly realize what can be done with IT, Internet and all that stuff, they build behemoths like ELENA.

    As for Google Streetview, the situation couldn’t be any more paradox. No one complained about Google Maps (and they shouldn’t have) where they could have complained, because you can see things there you can’t see from the street. Now comes Streetview and the whole country is on fire. Some reactionists went havoc about it in a number of reknown newspapers and witty as politicians are, they sense a way to gain some percents in the ballots.

    And that really is all there is to say about it.

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  • Matze

    So just a person mentioning an id card (simply Ausweis in German) makes you shiver and think of Nazis?
    Hahaha, makes me wonder who the real paranoid person is here, honestly not one of your best blog posts…

  • Jeff, I wonder if the recent reports about Google employees illegally accessing users’ private data reached you while in Germany? This story has only just begun to get legs.

    It is a perfect illustration of why privacy commissioners are right to worry about the manner in which private companies may or may not protect user data.

    If your point is that the German commissioner was a hypocrite for not worrying equally about government use of data then fair point. However this does not negate the concern about the behavior of private companies.

    It’s also true that sometimes the concerns are misapplied — for example eliminating addresses from Google Maps. Undoubtedly this is an example of overzealousness. And there is a thin line between overzealousness and censorship. Citizens must guard against the latter.

    However, the solution is not to ridicule government concern about privacy. As an American living in Europe, I prefer the European approach; I am always amazed when I deal with US-based businesses to find how much more of my data they want and how much less control I have over it.

    I think government-led protection of privacy is a good thing and should be encouraged. However it is up to citizens to influence government policy to be sure it is applied wisely — whether privacy policy, or energy policy, or whatever.

  • Lee

    Hmm interesting…. our neighbours to the north savage google more than the Swiss chap (Hanspeter Thür)..!! Our personal privacy laws are similar in many ways but it’s fun to see reactions.

    Street View – it’s a sign of the times. The collection of Wifi data was a bit of a cockup but really was not an invasion of privacy…..I’m sure people using Google Maps with the GPS/cell/wifi all helping fix a location are not upset.

    Using Google to search is simply a habit. Nobody is forced to do so….why not champion Firefox and OptimizeGoogle instead? This would follow on nicely after the STOP.USING.IE.NOW that was issued in January.

    Passports and ID cards….I do like the countermeasures introduced in recent years to make copying harder; my 1986-issued British passport would have been much easier to copy. RFID does not worry me too much – but what everyone has to do is take the same (forced) steps that the US has since the introduction into their passports in 2006 – shielding. If an ID card is a substitute for a passport (and it can be within a given scope) then the same care needs to be taken.

    Finally, look at SuisseID. It’s a digital certificate which does require some official, social ID to get but that’s it – at that point, you’ve verified who you claim to be and it’s separated from anything else. You can then use it on the Internet and that authentication is trusted – after all, it’s more than just identification. Thankfully, it’s not an ID card, not RFID-enabled but simply a SIM which goes into a USB reader. Of course, you can then get into the fact that each country is creating an isolated electronic island but, in the absence of anything else (and in the presence where CAs such as Comodo have been criticised with regards to certificate issuance), what is there?

  • Scot

    “dismisses and insults his own constituents and thinks he should tell them what to do”

    Welcome to Europe.

  • Some time ago german left-wingers talkd about “US-Kulturimperialismus”. Reading Jeff’s comments on the word “Ausweis” makes me believe that he must be a representative of a new born cultural imperialismen, molesting us germans with is strictly US-centered view on the virtual world. In my eyes he has not the slighest notion of european history and culture, but presumes to find it ridiculous that germans have no problem showing themselves naked to strangers in the sauna while trying to protect their virtual privacy. Worst of all, many german social media evangelists agree to it…

  • Christian

    This article reminds me of the articles british tabloids like “The Sun” write everytime the german soccer team has a match against england: It’s always the krauts, blitzkrieg and all that. Please stop it and acknowledge that privacy issues have to be serious treated. Everytime too much data is concentrated on one place, this is dangerous. What happens if some mind like Sarah Palin or Mark Zuckerberg takes over Google? I neither trust the government nor private companies but at least our government is elected. If the german state would collect all this data, the german public would be shocked. So it is only natural that data-collections by google and facebook is criticized. Sure, Street view is no real problem, but for most people street view is the only visible thing they can protest against. The new passport

  • germanysometimesreallysucks

    Well yeah, thats embarassing to read this, living in Germany. But thats also really typical for Germany, germans, german politics. They vote for politicians, that – besides further spreading the social gap by taking money from the poor and giving it to the “poor” banks – want to control them, their internet use, their data, that sell their data to private companies, for “security” reasons, of course. “Well, people are on facebook, why should they bother”, these politicians say.

    And then comes Google Street View, and – big scandal. “Uh what, people can see my house?!? No way! I mean, some people can read my mails, can analyze my consumer behaviour, can have all my travel information, can put cameras everywhere, etc., thats ok with me, as I do not understand what that is all about anyway. But PEOPLE WILL NOT LOOK AT MY HOUSEs FACADE ON THE GOOGLE-INTERNETS!!1! I AM GOING TO PROTEST!!11! ITS MY PRIVACY!!! I READ ABOUT IT IN THE CONSERVATIVE TABLOID, AND IT MAKES ME ANGRY!!”

    In the same way, they vote as a majority for politicians that make them have less income, so that “germany is more competetive in the world market”. Individually, they may lose money, but “germany stays competetive”, so its ok. “BUT THEY WILL NOT GIVE MY MONEY TO THE POOR, NO WAY! THE POOR ARE JUST STUPID AND LAZY, ITS THEIR OWN FAULT!!1” Its a contemporary mix of stupidity, double standards, ignorance, a strong believe in authorities, a fear of individual social decline, trust in conservatism, market liberalism, trust in “the elite”, a slight nationalism and the usual media-hype-trustfulness. “The internet” is mostly not seen as a tool for more democracy or openness, but as something suspicious, that transports the evil to germany. Even, and especially, many intellectuals view it in that way. So maybe its this whole mix, that then produces people and views like the ones you criticize here.

    And, unfortunately, there really is no real alternative to the governing conservative and liberal parties, as the social democrats have become as conservative and market-liberal as the conservatives (Tony Blair is still their hero), the green party has also become very “professional” (that means “conservative” in germany), and wants to form coalitions with the conservatives or already does. And the Left has a GDR-Tradition and lacks some left-wing-liberalism and fantasy. So there is no hope for big change. The young generation is also frightened and mostly conservative, and on facebook, so no hope there also. There is still small a fraction of netizens, progressives, liberals and leftwingers, that is aware of the realities, and has some reduced media-influence, but it is still not enough. So you just experienced a fragment of what we experience daily.

    Now I do not really know if the situation is much better in the english-speaking world, as the whole post-9/11-security-and-free-markets-hysteria came from there. But I guess, they have more liberal (in the real sense) traditions, which becames apparent in small details – like your remarks about the “Ausweis” – which is something noone is concerned about here. Another thing would be the “Meldepflicht”, which does not exist in the US or the UK, as far as I know.

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  • To those who complain here about my allusion to history, my response is here.

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  • evaclaudia

    “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””

    You seem to be confusing Hollywood propaganda movies about Germany with actual Germany. “Ausweis” is a perfectly normal word, like “drivers license” in America. The reason nobody except you is shivering is that you are the only one living in that Hollywood-generated crazy-crazy land. On the actual planet we live on today the Nazis are long gone and it is American security demands like “your fingerprints, please!” that make people shiver. Please stop hustling anti-German propaganda masquerading as debate.

  • evaclaudia

    I think it pretty funny if an American who has no problem with his government (or private corporations) spying on him, taking his fingerprints, taking pictures of his eyeballs, spying on his laptop, forcing him to show his ID to every private security guard upon entering an office building, putting up security cameras on every street corners freaks out when he hears the word “Ausweis”, and not only that, he expect Germans go along with his American-centered closed mind.

    Jeff, if you are willing to make a contribution to a debate, go ahead. But as long as you are spreading racial stereotypes, nobody takes you serious.

    By the way, what do you do if you hear a woman talking in a French accent? Grope her?

    • Please do show me the links where I say I have “no problem” with all those things. Again, “racial stereotype” is a sicko version of PC aimed at cutting off legitimate discusion. You won’t allow me to harken to your past. Sorry. You hold no authority over me. And I won’t dignify your undignified end with a response, “evaclaudia.”

  • evaclaudia

    “Isn’t it a short step when everyone is required to have one. Mind you, I”m not usually the paranoid one but this is enough to make me convert. And in any case, if Germans are so strong about privacy in other contexts, not this one … with government?”

    If you so concerned about that, why don’t you fight the need to have a driver’s license and a social security number in America?

    • I am not required to have a driver’s license. It’s a choice and privilege. And indeed Social Security numbers are misused.

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  • peshtigo

    Dear Jeff,

    I agree with those people here writing, that you didn’t understand the German debate.

    There is no word from you about other concerns (as for instance I mentioned in the Böll-discussion) like wanting to have the freedom of disposition of my data. That means: I want to have the disposition to allow Google to make business with my data or not. And i don’t want Google to make business with it to be able to acquire more and more companies do diversify, to become (sometimes the only) market leader.

    That’s the reason why I wrote do Google already more than a year ago, that I don’t want my house to be published in street view (and they wrote me back just this august to respect it).

    If you like to be a fan-boy of Google: do so. I don’t need to be a fan-boy of commercial companies for my self consciousness. I’m a fan of Van Morrison or “American Graffiti” or my soccer club.

    By the way: quite interesting for Google fan-boys, what taz newspaper published as video of the week:


    (just to answer your question on the podium, where Google does harm to anyone)

    • Peshtigo,
      If you don’t want Google to “make business with” your data, simple: Don’t use it. How the hell do you think they provide you with free service? Advertising. How does advertising become more effective and valuable? Targeting. Indeed, Google doesn’t get paid if you don’t click and so it uses data to give you more relevant advertising. Welcome to the real world. You have something against commercial comapnies? Where do you get your news, friend? How the hell do you think they survive?

      • peshtigo

        Dear Jeff,

        at first: My colleague Ulrike Langer said about Thilo Weichert (further on up) ” He used the exact same phrases and gave no answers to the same questions.” Seems to me, the same applies to you. Exactly the same no answers to my questions as on the Böll discussion.

        Yes I use Google quite frequently but I’m looking for alternatives as well. I never click on Google advertisements. Why should I? To be yet much more targeted with “more relevant advertising”? Ha, ha! If they earn the money by ads for their service, it’s okay, But why should I help them?

        The crucial point is: I don’t want them to make money in using data about me. I claim this right for resistance against the commercialization of life. And this applies not only for Google.

        And thanks for the special instructions about the economy of media. My german journalistics professor did that already some decades before you.

        I think, you are very much overestimated, not only by “many german social media evangelists”.

        • Peshtigo,
          “Why should I help them?”
          Why the hostility? Would you like to go back to the DDR? This is capitalism, mate. It works pretty well.
          If you are hostile to all advertising, fine, then all content will go behind pay walls. Then will you complain?
          “Right for resistance against the commercialization of life.” Oh, give me a break. Cue the Internationale. And go have a Coke.

        • peshtigo

          Dear Jeff,

          Once again to late. “Geh doch nach drüben” (“Cross over to the other side!”) was a standard slogan of the German war and post-war generation to us kids in the sixties or seventies.

          Yes, it’s capitalism.. And it works well? Where have you been the last two years (at least)? Oh, sorry, I forgot: on well endowed podia around the world. The demand for hackneyed statements was quite huge despite the crisis.

          I will give you a break, the Internationale isn’t bad to cue, much better than many national anthems (and I don’t have to put my trembling right hand on my heart). But I think I prefer Ton Steine Scherben and a local beer.

          But for your break, you might read Thomas Tuma in the terrible anticapitalist magazine “Der Spiegel” (http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/0,1518,717175,00.html).

          I cite the last phrases: “Ein Gedanke oder gar der Widerstand gegen ein Regime wird nicht dadurch lächerlich, dass er keine Chance zu haben scheint. (…) Die Politik ist längst der David im Kampf gegen den Totalitarismus des Goliaths Internetindustrie.

          Wir sollten mal wieder auf der Seite der Schwächeren stehen. Das ist überraschenderweise die Seite der Politik – und vor allem unsere eigene.”

      • Andy Freeman

        > I don’t want them to make money in using data about me.

        Then don’t use them.

        > I claim this right for resistance against the commercialization of life.

        You seem to think that you’re entitled to decide how Google pays for the services that you use. You’re not. If you don’t like how Google makes money, don’t use it.

        Which reminds me – how are you willing to pay for services like Google provides? If there is enough money from folks who prefer terms that you like, someone will provide those services under those terms. (It’s not that expensive to build a decdent search engine.)

        Of course, if you’re expecting those services for free….

  • Die Entgleisung von Weichert ist eine Unverschämtheit und zeigt deutlich, wie weit Staatsvertreter von der Realität entfernt sind und mit welcher Überheblichkeit sie über Netzthemen sprechen. Die Furcht dieser Datenschützer hat ja fast obsessive Züge. Und die Beschlüsse dieser Datenschützer im Düsseldorfer Kreises (wer kennt diese Runde wirklich) sind mehr als problematisch und schädlich: Siehe: http://gunnarsohn.wordpress.com/2010/06/11/ilse-aigner-gedenkstunde-auf-den-kolner-adwords-days-wer-uberwacht-die-huter-des-datenschutzes-bei-der-auslegung-geltenden-rechts/

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  • Christoph

    Dear folks,

    while I 100% agree on the central arguments regarding the google stupidity of most German politicans, and also the low competence level of the German media, I really cannot understand why words like “Ausweis” or the other interpretation of the oh-so-obvious hints in language and public life in Germany lead the author to the conclusion that it is “Oh, those Germans” who are just that. It is just the same narrow mind that makes some (some!) Germans believe that “those Turks” or “those ” are stealing jobs, are lazy, or stupid.

    I mean: There is nothing like “those Germans”. Better focus on the subject at hand, like many Germans do, fighting the dumb energy plans (build coal plants! prolong nuclear power plant´s licenses! Ecologic energy sources are inefficient!” of the government, and getting creative in helping the weak and poor ones (most Germans have lost a lot of net income in the last 10 years).

    Because then, and only then, the German people will get the government they deserve. Better fight the ultra-capitalism. And don´t misinterpret mainstream headlines or politician brabble as “those German”´s voice.

    For a start, dig into the Telepolis online magazine at http://www.heise.de, and you´ll see that the tide is already turning. To a better direction.

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  • Andreas


    Privacy is about control. You’re taking away control. This is not “evil” by default, but what do you expect? That everybody say “hoooray!”?

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  • MacRadge

    Thank you very much for such a inspiring speech!

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  • Marianna

    “…here was never a more frightening phrase than “Ausweis, bitte…”

    How times change… As a German, it was the most frightening situation in my life to go through passport control at the airport in New York. I need a special ID-Card for the U.S. only (biometric identity card with computer chip), a special visa (ESTA application with numerous private information), fingerprints(!), photo, eye scan, and so on. I could imagine how it must have been 70 years ago in Germany.

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