Berlin's famous boulevard, Unter den Linden, is a coveted address for lobbyists in the German capital. The Bertelsmann Foundation has an office there, as do Deutsche Bank and the pharmaceutical group GlaxoSmithKline. Their offices exude sophistication, and the only time male employees would show up without a tie is on casual Fridays, if then.
Things are a little different inside the building at Unter den Linden 14. There, the carpeting has a colorful checked pattern, little robots stare out from a glass case, and the conference rooms are named after hip Berlin clubs like Panorama Bar and Watergate. Snapshots of grimacing employees are displayed on the outside of a photo booth.
This week, Internet giant Google will officially open its Berlin office at this address. The timing seems to be perfect, given the enormous amount of pressure the company has come under recently, both in Germany and around the world.
A trial resulting from charges filed against Google by Max Mosley begins in Hamburg on Sept. 28. Mosely, the former president of Formula One's governing body FIA, is demanding that the search engine remove references on its site to photos taken at a sex party. Bettina Wulff, the wife of former German President Christian Wulff, has just filed a lawsuit against the company, because entering her name into the search engine leads to suggested results that she perceives as defamatory.
And then there are the European Commission's plans to issue a new data privacy regulation that would establish a right to be forgotten online, an especially menacing proposal for Google. Finally, the German cabinet recently approved a new ancillary copyright rule designed to give publishers the right to charge search engines when they list their articles together with short teaser texts.
A Question of Power
This is more than a question of business, but rather a question of power. The effects that the company's decisions can have are evident in the current debate over "Innocence of Muslims." The trailer for the film, which has caused turmoil in the Arab world, can be seen on Google's subsidiary, YouTube, albeit not in all countries.
Google currently has sole control over what is and isn't shown on YouTube. Google executives such as the company's top German manager, Philipp Schindler, have avoided public debate on the issue. The company only states its position through dry statements or blog entries, and it remains uncompromising on the central issues. In cases like the Mosley and Wulff lawsuits, the company has so far always referred to the technology, namely the algorithm that controls its search results.
But when it comes to issues that are not part of current affairs, the company takes a much more active approach, conducting an elaborate lobbying campaign to influence the debate over Internet policy.
For its new office, Google has assembled a team of seven lobbyists and has entered into influential alliances. The company supports a think tank, a research institute, interest groups and relevant conferences. In Berlin, Google plays a central role in matters of Internet policy. Chief lobbyist Annette Kroeber-Riel says the company aims to be "transparent and open" in this context. An experienced lobbyist, Kroeber-Riel joined Google in 2007 and built the company's German lobbying arm from scratch.
But is it really transparent and open? The company does not disclose all the details of its interlocking interests. A former Google lobbyist now works for the German Foreign Ministry, where he recently co-organized a conference titled "Internet and Human Rights." The company also engages external lobbyists who advocate on its behalf in Berlin.
A few weeks ago, visitors were invited to tour Google's new Berlin offices. Ben Scott, a former adviser to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave a speech on Germans' fear of the Internet, titled: "The Internet is not a dark and scary place." The audience consisted of Internet-savvy activists, government officials and people from the business community.
Max Senges managed the event. According to his business card, the blond 34-year-old is in charge of "Multistakeholder Cooperations" for Google, which means that his job is to bring all interested parties to one table -- preferably Google's table.
The meeting was officially organized by Collaboratory, a think tank funded by Google that Senges has been building since 2010. Collaboratory was recently transformed into an association to make it more independent. Nevertheless, Senges is still a member of the steering committee.
In the fall of 2010, Collaboratory invited 41 experts to discuss the subject of copyright. The steering committee headed by Senges decided to assemble a group of "reform-oriented" individuals for the meeting. But the participants were not all able to agree on a common position. "We were merely window dressing," says Stefan Herwig, who runs a music label and works as a consultant for creative industries.
In fact, the "guidelines" in the closing document were not developed by all the experts, but by a team of nine people. The team included no artists or marketers, but it did include two Google employees and an attorney who now works for Google.
Critics were given a short amount of time to voice their "divergent opinion," which is also included in the final report. But according to the critics, a term was used in the report that had not been mentioned before: "intermediaries." The term refers to search engines like Google. According to the document, the interests of these "intermediaries" should be "considered equally" with creators and users, because they "promote or enable the availability of creative property through secondary offerings."
The five dissenters objected, saying that they were surprised that the word had found its way into the document. "To some extent, Google produced the desired results itself," Herwig suspects. But not every dissenter is that critical. Another expert says that Google simply acted in a "clumsy" fashion.
'Commitment to Civil Society'
Google insists that it did not influence the final report. It refers to the report itself for an explanation of how the guidelines came about. According to the report, the head of the group of experts, Till Kreutzer, assembled the "Drafting Group."
Kreutzer has been involved with Google for some time. In 2010, he created the Initiative Against Ancillary Copyright (IGEL), which was co-funded by Google. In the Collaboratory 2011 final report, Kreutzer neglects to mention Google's financial support. To this day, neither side is willing to reveal how much Google spent on IGEL.
Kreutzer explains that his motivation for creating the initiative was his "commitment to civil society." He says that he was unwilling to accept the practice of publishers using their political contacts to push through a measure that he felt was counterproductive. According to Kreutzer, Google guaranteed him complete editorial control. But this approach doesn't exactly seem transparent.
Shaping the Public Discourse
Google also relies on the services of traditional lobbyists. In Berlin, for example, the company has engaged Axel Wallrabenstein, a former national chairman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) youth group, and now the head of German operations for MSLGroup, a PR firm.
According to members of the CDU group in the German parliament, the Bundestag, Wallrabenstein constantly sends out emails containing information about ancillary copyright, invites them to discussion groups and offers Google's new Berlin offices as a venue for conferences. Conveniently, Wallrabenstein is also the chairman of the advisory council of "CNetz," a CDU-affiliated group devoted to Internet policy issues. In response to the question of why he is involved with CNetz, Wallrabenstein, writing on the website, states: "because I think the name sounds so cool." He doesn't mention his work for Google, however. Wallrabenstein explains that everyone at CNetz is aware of the fact that Google has engaged his firm. He also notes that his work for Google has been acknowledged publicly with awards.
Google says that Wallrabenstein mediates discussions with politicians. The company seeks to portray itself as performing an educational function, rather than as a lobbyist for its own interests. "We want to take responsibility and contribute our expertise," says Kroeber-Riel, the head of the Berlin office. "In conversations with politicians, it is often necessary to begin by talking about the basics of the Internet and how it works."
Many people would agree that this kind of work is necessary. But what does it mean when a company that has an excessively large amount of influence on everyday activities on the Internet is also involved in shaping the public discourse? And what happens when a company which has a quasi-monopoly as a search engine also threatens to gain a quasi-monopoly when it comes to explaining the Internet?
The Berlin-based Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society was founded last year. The organizations involved in the institute include Humboldt University, the Berlin University of the Arts, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Hans Bredow Institute. Google is contributing €4.5 million ($5.8 million) to the development of the institute in the first few years. The four directors have such illustrious reputations that there should be no doubt as to their integrity. Some of their writings are also critical of Google.
Nevertheless, many observers have qualms about the company's funding of the effort. "Of course, they all claim that they are independent and would not allow their work to be rubber-stamped by Google," writes blogger Philip Banse. But the problem, he adds, is that mental self-censorship begins long before anyone needs to prohibit anything. Banse is especially critical of the fact that the government was incapable of funding a similar institute itself.
A new interest group with the working title "German Internet Governance Coalition" is currently taking shape in Berlin. On the Wednesday before last, lobbyists, activists and academics met in the offices of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (New Responsibility Foundation), a Berlin-based think tank. Google's Senges also attended the meeting. The makeup of the group must have been to his liking.
A wide range of organizations is expected to participate in the interest group, including the German Internet Association and the Ver.di public sector union. The loose coalition hopes to gain the support of German Economics Minister Philipp Rösler. The coalition is urging him to advocate a free and borderless Internet at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in December.
An American understanding of public relations is behind Google's activities. The company combines involvement in social issues with corporate interests, and in doing so it grants its partners considerable freedom. Google embraces the community to ensure its participation in important discussions -- or, better yet, to launch those discussions itself. However, because of its omnipresence and close ties to many Internet activists and academics, Google's own role is subject to little critical scrutiny.
The company sets noble goals for itself: Internet freedom, freedom of opinion and the struggle against censorship. But its overriding goal is to do its utmost to prevent political interference in its business affairs.
In mid-September, the community of Internet activists attended a two-day conference at the German Foreign Ministry to discuss the topic of "Internet and Human Rights." The Google-funded Humboldt Institute was one of the four organizers, with the company providing €30,000 in sponsorship for the conference. Google already has a special connection to the Foreign Ministry. One of the ministry officials who co-organized the conference spent five months working as a lobbyist for the company until last year. The Foreign Ministry and Google stress that the lobbyist was not instrumental in establishing the contact for the conference.
Much of the discussion at the conference revolved around the positive role social networks played in the Arab revolutions. The meeting coincided with the global wave of outrage at the Muhammad video, taking place shortly after the US ambassador and three other people died in Libya when an angry mob attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi.
But anyone hoping to experience a tense discussion was disappointed. The mood was diplomatic. That was also the case with the appearance of the most prominent guest, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
Although Westerwelle mentioned the video in his speech and characterized the Internet as both a "blessing and a curse," in his most important point he coincided with the interests of the sponsor of the conference. Self-regulation and the multi-stakeholder approach should be of paramount importance on the Internet, the foreign minister said.
A Google executive couldn't have said it better.