There’s a hubbub brewing over privacy and Facebook in Germany — and, not for the first time, there’s misinformation involved. So I got on the phone to Facebook to get technical facts.
First, the news: Thilo Weichert, head of the office for data protection in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, issued a press release (conveniently translated into English) attacking and essentially outlawing the Facebook “Like” button on sites, telling them to take down the button — and, oddly, their fan pages — and threatening them with 50,000€ fines. He declared that “Like” violates German and European law because it sends data about users back to Facebook in the U.S. He went so far as to advise German users not to click on “Like” and even not to set up Facebook accounts.
I contacted Facebook and just spoke with the head of the platform, Carl Sjogreen, and the chief European spokesman, Stefano Hesse, to understand what really happens. This is what Sjogreen said:
Obviously, when you click on a “Like” button, you are telling the world you like something and so, of course, your identity and your affection are recorded and published at Facebook. If you are signed into Facebook when you visit a site with the “Like” button, obviously, Facebook’s servers will act on knowing who you are because it will tell you which of your friends also publicly liked this site.
In the case Weichert seems to be aiming at, If you are not signed into Facebook, your IP address will be sent back to Facebook but then your IP address is sent back to the servers of Google+ buttons, comment systems, and ads of all types. “That’s how browsers work,” Sjogreen said. “We don’t use that information in any way to create a profile for the user, as has been alleged here.”
Facebook send sites data in aggregate so they can see, for example, click-through rates for the “Like” button in various pages. Facebook erases IP data after 90 days. It does something else to further anonymize I hope to tell you about later.
“The only time ‘Like’ button information is associated with a particular person is when you are signed into Facebook and click,” Sjogreen said.
I see no violation of privacy, no sneaky stealing of user information worthy of this action and press release – which, by the way, Weichert issued without taking to Facebook. Indeed, Hesse told me that Facebook has been working with Weichert’s counterpart in Hamburg and that that office, he says, is pleased with what Facebook is doing.
But Weichert is a grandstander. I saw that first-hand when I debated him in a panel set up by the Green party in Berlin, where he attacked not only Google but his constituents — the people he is supposedly trying to protect — who use it: “As long as Germans are stupid enough to use this search engine,” he spat, “they don’t deserve any better.” He went farther, comparing Google with China and Iran. “Google’s only interest is to earn money,” he said, as if shocked. That theme continues in his Facebook attack, where he complains that the company is worth more than $50 billion. No, he’s not from the Communist part.
Earlier today, I went to search GoogleNews for “Facebook” and “Schleswig-Holstein” to find news on the event but found something else interesting, which I discussed — to considerable controversy — in a Google+ post: A politician from Schleswig-Holstein just resigned in shame after confessing to an affair via Facebook with a 16-year-old girl. To me, there’s an obvious paradox there: Aren’t government officials trying first to protect the privacy and thus safety of our young people? Yet here is a government official exploiting a young girl via Facebook. Facebook is not the threat here; the government official is. In my earlier post, I said that in some states in the U.S., this would be statutory rape. Much upset ensued. But I still don’t get it. Who’s protecting whom from whom?
This is why I focused so much on Germany in my book, Public Parts, because it is grappling with privacy and technology in ways that are similar to other cultures, only amplified and skewed.
In any case, I wanted to get to the facts here and that’s why I’m posting this.
I just want to get this on the record and off my (fully clothed) chest: I was wrong about Anthony Weiner.
I’d said nothing about the whole hoo-ha because I didn’t think it was worth the attention. Then I got a call from Howard Kurtz’ Reliable Sources to come on last Sunday and talk about it. My wife said, Why are you doing that? I said, I’ll be on the right side. As always, she was right. On the show, I said that media were using this as an opportunity for sophomoric jokes and that the fuss over a penis was a symptom of American Puritanism. What’s the worst that happened here? I asked: So what if he had a stupid picture on his phone and accidentally tweeted it, so long as he wasn’t sexually harassing anyone? But that’s not the worst that happened.
Weiner lied. That is the story. That’s what haters said in email to me after the CNN segment. They were right.
What’s most amazing to me is that anyone in politics in this age could still be stupid enough to think that the coverup won’t be what kills them. That’s not just a matter of the age of publicness and the net that I write about. It is perhaps Richard Nixon’s most important legacy. I gave Weiner too much credit when I thought he must have figured this out.
The personal irony for me is that I’ve long thought Weiner is a weasel. I chose to overlook that in this case. Wrong again. I confronted him at a Personal Democracy Forum a few years ago (it so happens that PDF11 is going on right now) over his support of noxious legislation to raise fines on so-called indecency on broadcast. Weiner would go onto Howard Stern’s show as an alleged fan to get the attention but then he’d turn around and throw Stern, the First Amendment, and freedom of speech to the wind for a politically expedient vote. So he voted with prudery and isn’t it always the case that the prudes are the ones with something to hide? Now we see what he was hiding.
I’m trying to pull back from my personal embarrassment and stupidity at giving this shmuck the benefit of the doubt and see the lessons here about our age of publicness. There are many. It fascinates me that Twitter provides such an easy way for people to connect for *any* purpose. It astounds me that Weiner thought he could do this under his name with his face and think it would not end up being a public act. Once he was public to the extent of sharing with one person — a stranger — then it’s nothing for that to be shared with the world in an instant. All this affirms my belief that the only sane way to operate in one’s life today — as a public figure especially — is as if *anything* you do can and will be seen by *anyone.* I would still like to think that eventually this will lead to an assumption, a default of transparency.
But then, I keep forgetting the calculate into this view the forgetful, venal stupidity of the public official. That’s where I was wrong. Have I said that enough?
: I emailed a link to this post to the people who emailed me after the CNN segment. They were nasty in how they said it but they were right.
That is the message I would like to bring to the e-G8 summit on the internet gathered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy this week in Paris.
I am apprehensive about a meeting of government and industry that begins with the presumption that they wield authority over the internet, the people’s internet. Cory Doctorow decided not to attend, declaring it a “whitewash” for regimes that are at “war with the free, open net.” Perhaps that’s the right decision. Given the chance to go, I decided to witness it up close and say what I have to say so at least I can say I said it. And that is this:
The internet was born open, free, and distributed. As conceived and built, all bits are created equal. It must stay that way. Sarkozy called this meeting to discuss the growth of the internet. It will grow only if it is open and free.
Like John Perry Barlow, I believe that governments have no sovereignty in the net. There is no consent of the governed as there are no governed there. Governments are not the appropriate bodies to protect the internet. When one government assumes that authority, all will. If the U.S., the U.K, the E.U., the U.N., or the G8 impose their wills on the net — no matter how benevolent they claim to be (and none should be trusted) — then China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and no end of tyrants and despots will also claim the right to govern the net. We will end up living under the high water mark of regulation. That means the death of the open net and all it affords society. Instead of reducing the internet through regulation, government should protect the internet.
Companies are also not to be trusted as protectors of the net. Even as I praised Google for at long last deciding to stop doing the bidding of censorious Chinese dictators, it was negotiating a cynical devil’s compact with Verizon to apportion the net into a neutral wired net and a constrained wireless net. No, companies are not to be trusted. The most appalling thing about the Google-Verizon-FCC pact was that the people were not at the table. These companies and agencies presume to cut up our internet and do not even try to give the appearance of including us. That is the dangerous vacuum they try to fill.
Some argue that protecting net neutrality is a form of government regulation. At South by Southwest, Sen. Al Franken convincingly counters that all net neutrality is doing is assuring that the internet is not changed, not perverted from its original state of freedom. He exhorted the crowd of net people, creative people, and entrepreneurs: “It is time for us to use the internet to save the internet.”
The pity is that this meeting on the future of the internet and its growth was called by a head of state and not by us, the people of the net. We have only ourselves to blame. Imagine if this meeting had instead been called by some other body closer to the people with preservation of net freedom as its agenda: an Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Mozilla Foundation, a Berkman Center, SXSW, a university, students in Egypt, an ad hoc disorganization of people online… who?
And what would such an assembly do? I have argued that we need to have a discussion of the principles of the net. I don’t think we will ever get much past discussion, as I do not want to see the imposition of governance on the net from government or corporations or self-appointed bodies, either.
But we must have an open and vigorous discussion of principles so we can discern the shape of our beliefs. In the course of that, I argue at the conclusion of my book Public Parts, “some truths will become self-evident. We will come to examine what matters to us and what we must protect. We will expose different views, priorities, dangers, and needs. Most important, we will have an expression of some principles to point to when powerful institutions try to control our net and diminish our publicness, power, and freedom.”
I welcome the discussion in Paris. I wonder about context set by the convener and the congregants it gathers. Yes, government should be at the table. See German Justice Minister Sabina Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger also calling (auf Deutsch) for a debate over digital values. Yes, companies should be at the table. Like it or not, they build the net. But the table should be ours, not theirs.
I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble and to act.
IV. Privacy is an ethic of knowing.
V. Publicness is an ethic of sharing.
VI. Our institutions’ information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet must stay open and distributed.
The last one is the internet’s best protection: its own structure. To the leaders gathered in Paris, I say of that architecture: Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.
* * *
I am also set to be on a panel about privacy and data. There, I plan to say that the framing of the discussion is limited and prejudicial. Why is the discussion about privacy? It should also be about protecting publicness.
The internet is our greatest tool of publicness ever. It is everyperson’s Gutenberg press. It enables anyone to speak to everyone. It allows revolutionaries to organize and supports their revolutions. It brings transparency to governments and markets. It helps us find and organize our own publics, across boundaries, apart from mass labels. We should be discussing protecting the internet rather than protecting us from it.
In Der Spiegel (auf Deutsch), Christian Stöcker warns against the demonizing of tools. That is, I fear, the starting point of this discussion, like so many others. If this discussion is about the growth of the internet, then we should guard against restricting it because of prospective fears before we even fully understand it.
At this entire meeting, we must be aware of the internet as a means of disruption. That is why it frightens institutions of legacy power and why they hope to regulate and limit it, using convenient masks — privacy, security, civility…. And that is why I worry when those institutions call a meeting to discuss governing the agent of their own disruption.
* * *
There is no reason for me to be at the E-G8 except that I happen to know people who invited me (after the initial lists were out). No one elected me. I have no standing to represent anyone. But I would like to try to represent some of your views, as best I can. So please enter into the discussion here.
(Full disclosure: As an academic without corporate support, I accepted travel accommodations from Publicis, which is organizing this meeting on behalf of the French government. I did not pay nor am I being paid to attend.)
: Here is a petition urging Sarkozy et al “to publicly commit to citizen-centered policies like expanding internet access for all, combating digital censorship and surveillance, limiting online intermediary liability, and upholding principles of net neutrality.”
* * *
FROM PARIS: I got to ask my question of Sarkozy this morning. He acknowledged in his talk today that government does not own the internet. I said that if a government asserts authority over the internet, any internet can. So I asked him and the G8 to take the Hippocratic pledge: First, do no harm.
He mocked the question, saying that was easy, that he would take the pledge. Ah, but then he defined harm. He asked whether it was harmful for the government to protect intellectual property, security, children… Having no microphone now, I could not say that, indeed, it could be harmful.
I write from the city where Gutenberg’s erstwhile partner and funder, Johann Fust, was nearly arrested because he came here to sell printed Bibles. The booksellers in Paris called the policy on him, declaring there was no way he could have so many Bibles except from the work of black magic. Well, today, the internet is still black magic. We don’t know what it is yet. To define it, restrict it, regulate it, limit it before we even know what it is, there is danger there.
Yes, President Sarkozy, you can do harm.
: Here is video of Sarkozy’s talk and my Q&A (starting at 48:10):
: LATER: Here’s Dave Morgan’s good summary of the event.