Street View is online in Germany and it includes — or rather, excludes — 244,000 addresses that Germans have demanded be pixelated. They have, in their word, demanded their Verpixelungsrecht.
It is more offensive than I had imagined, a desecration of the public demanded and abetted by German politicians and media on a supposed privacy frenzy.
See this building on Hugo-von-Königsegg-Straße in Oberstaufen, Germany.
Ugly, isn’t it? As someone in the audience said when I spoke on the topic at a meeting of the Green party in Berlin a few weeks ago, it is as if they are digitally bombing the German landscape.
Now you can drive to Oberstaufen and stand across the street — between the Edele bookstore and Dr. Fassnacht’s building — and look at the building all you want because you would be exercising your right to be in public. But not online, not in the land of Deutschnet, you can’t. Germany has now diminished the public. It has stolen from the public.
This is not a matter of privacy. And don’t tell me it has a damned thing to do with the Nazis and Stasi; that’s patently absurd. If anything, the Stasi would have exercised their Verpixelungsrecht to obscure their buildings from public view, taking advantage of the cloak of secrecy the idea provides. That’s the danger of this.
This is an issue of publicness. These are public visions now obscured. This is why I am writing a book about protecting the public, from assaults such as this. I can’t write it fast enough.
MORE: Here’s Der Spiegel (in German) under the headline: So Google pixelates the Republic. Don’t blame Google, folks, blame yourselves. It notes that the mayor of Oberstaufen, however, welcomed Street View. With a cake.
: UND AUF DEUTSCH: Zeit Online translated a version of this post — a message to Germany — into German, guaranteeing that the next time I visit Germany, I’ll get hit over the head with a mass of cameras. If you care, I’ve pasted the English original after the break.
Here’s my talk to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt before the Book Fair there, in which I argue that books are tools for making publics and now that we all have presses publishers must ask how they can play a role in helping us make publics — and how they can protect our tools of publicness.
I’m having trouble setting the width of the player, so go to the “more” link and you can watch the videos. (more…)
Various German commenters in my prior post about my talk in Berlin are taking me to task because I dared hark back to World War II in a discussion of government-required identity cards and how that enables the state to monitor the people — and a discussion of the value of publicness and how that enables the people to monitor the state.
“I really don’t think it it necessary to pull the ‘Nazi-card,'” said one. “Please don’t even in an article about Google make strange references to the Nazi history…” said another. “Can we please let the nazis peacefully burn in hell? K thx,” asks one more. “It’s always the krauts, blitzkrieg and all that,” complains the last.
So apparently Germans are allowed to say Nazi. I’m not.
Let’s examine that. In Friday’s discussion in Berlin, it was the German politicians who alluded to World War II and East German oppression. Thilo Weichert, the privacy commissioner, raised the allusion in his opening remarks: “Of course, we have a Nazi history in Germany and we have the DDR history, which makes clear to us how information can bring oppression.” A reporter in the crowd asked whether in decades we’d believe that “pixelated buildings were taken away from historians and the public, so Germany would look worse than after the war.” Renate Künast, the Green leader in the Budestag, huffed in reply that “the reconstruction of the pixelated buildings is much easier than what the Trümmerfrau [women who cleaned up rubble] did after the war.”
As I said in my post, every time I talk about privacy in Germany, I am reminded by Germans that I must consider the context of the Nazi and Stasi past. It is in this very context that I raise the spectre of police stopping citizens on the street to demand identification for reasons that cannot always be predicted and protected against. It has happened before. It is in this context that I raise the idea that what’s public is a public good that can nonetheless be destroyed by government’s actions. It has happened before. It is in this context that I raise the warning that the people should not give anyone, especially government, the right to hide in public by forbidding us to picture what happens there. It has happened before. And it is in this context that I pointed to what I confessed was the too-obvious — but very, ahem, concrete — metaphor of a bunker just at the corner as a warning of a society that closes inward in defensiveness. It has happened before. But apparently, I’m not allowed to say that. Only Germans are.
(And note well that in my book, I will also spend considerable time talking about another part of German history, Gutenberg’s, and the transition from one way of cognating and expressing the world. Because it has happened before.)
More context: I’m a friend of Germany. I love the place. I married into a German family. I am fascinated by the people. I go there as often as I can find an excuse. I am grateful that my career and the internet have enabled me to make friends and have colleagues there. I hold the nation and its accomplishments in high esteem while I learn lessons from its past. I have studied the nation’s history with shelves of book at home on the subject. I have studied the language but to little avail and I apologize for that every time I am in Germany.
I do not apologize for my affection for Germany. But I must tell you, my German friends, that many Americans expect me to. I get funny looks when it comes out that I took German in school and I am asked why I would do that. People ask about my politics as a result. I know Americans, still, who won’t buy products made in Germany. I defend Germany to them. And part of that defense is to tell them how much the Germans talk about their past and consider it. Tucked all over Berlin are memorials to the victims of that past. At the Topography of Terror exhibit in the remains of the basement of the Gestapo headquarters, the list of those memorials — a plaque of plaques — is amazingly and tragically long.
But in the discussion here, it is as if my critics are saying, “We talk about our past and that is enough. So you shouldn’t.” Or worse, they are saying we should not talk about the past. It is as if they are saying that for me, Nazi is the N word.
But as someone from a nation of oppressors myself, I think we need to examine the etymology and ownership of words of oppression. Here, the American N word was a tool of oppression whose ownership was taken over by its oppressed. As a white American, I may not use it and that is as it should be.
But in Germany, I am hearing that Nazi is a word Germans may use but not others. Sorry, but the word no longer belongs to Germany; in Germany’s hands, it was a tool of oppression. So now it belongs to its victims, to the rest of the world.
If that word is used only as an insult — see: Godwin’s Law — then it is being misused. But that was not the case in the present discussion. Here, all of us — the German government officials and I — were trying to find context in history for changes in our world brought on by digital identity and its impact on privacy and the tools of publicness and their impact on our power in society. That is a perfectly legitimate discussion. It should not be shut down, my German friends, because you don’t like hearing someone else use what you think is your N word.
My points about the past are serious indeed. Beware government using your identity as its tool against you. Beware the precedent of telling Google it may not picture what’s public as that enables those in power to stop the rest of us — the public — from picturing what is public. And beware bewaring too much, talking just about what could go wrong and missing the opportunities change brings because we keep looking back instead of forward.
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 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.