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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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).
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.