Taking on the Internet Giants Germany Applies Brakes to Google & Co.
The German government has discovered the Internet and data privacy as a political issue. The new debate over who should control the online world reveals a clash of two cultures, with the American ideal of freedom contrasting with the European desire for privacy. By SPIEGEL staff.
Sometimes it's a good thing to have at least one real enemy, particularly when you already have no friends. No one knows this better than Ilse Aigner.
For the last year and a half, Aigner, who is from Upper Bavaria and is a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has been Germany's minister of food, agriculture and consumer protection -- in that order. Aigner spends much of her time inaugurating trade shows and agricultural fairs, being photographed with cute farm animals and expressing her outrage over rotten meat, genetically engineered corn and imitation cheese. She hasn't made much of an impression.
Until now, that is. She recently took on a truly serious issue: the Internet and data privacy. And suddenly the minister finds herself facing more powerful foes than dodgy butchers: online giants like Amazon, Facebook and, above all, Google.
Soon the US search engine company plans to send cars equipped with cameras out onto Germany's roads once again, to photograph every house and every block and create three-dimensional maps for the company's Street View project. Aigner is now insisting that Google should ask permission before violating the privacy of German citizens. Most of all, the minister's attacks reveal just how divided the German government is when it comes to the online world.
Fixing a Broken Relationship
In the power struggle over who has the say over digital issues, the cabinet in Berlin seems to be firing off broadsides somewhat at random. On Tuesday of last week, Germany's Constitutional Court ruled that a law requiring telecommunications companies to retain data from telephone, email and Internet traffic is unconstitutional. The law was introduced by former Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), as implementation of an EU guideline. Ironically, the critics of data retention included her successor, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberg, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière had earlier invited Web activists, bloggers and experts to his ministry for a three-hour exchange of views. "The relationship between the government and Internet users is impaired, and I intend to fix it," he promised.
And while Aigner was attacking Street View, the chancellor appeared to give Google Street View her blessing in her weekly video address. Merkel said that citizens who didn't want to be photographed by Google could opt out by simply submitting a form letter, the template for which could be found on the Consumer Protection Ministry's Web site. Some people interpreted this as an attempt to muzzle Aigner, until the government's press office made it clear that Merkel's statement was a "communication glitch."
The week continued in much the same way. Then, on Thursday of last week, a commission of inquiry called "Internet and Digital Society" was launched. It will spend the next two years examining the interaction between people and digital media.
Fears of Terrorism
The government in Berlin isn't alone in its vacillation between old fears of terrorism and new consumer populism, and between the government's desire to exert control and the goal of individual freedom. In the recent debates, different cultures and points of view collided for the first time.
On the one side is the European desire for strict protection of individuals' rights, and on the other is the American ideal of extensive freedoms. Politicians and consumers are facing off against a phalanx of young, enormous corporations that are only interested in one ideology, namely growth.
There is, at least, one kernel of hope. "The long overdue discussion of data privacy is now finally getting underway," says former German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, a legal expert and civil rights activist who is a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party.
German politicians, says Baum, have "completely missed the boat" on the issue. For this reason, and because the adversaries are globally active corporations, Baum believes that the debate must be elevated to a new level. "The European Parliament needs to get involved now," he says. "A European data privacy debate finally has to get underway."
Different Definitions of Freedom
The debate revolves around questions of national security and individual self-determination on the Internet. But it also concerns the power of the large and still-growing online giants, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and MySpace, as well as the question of what these companies are doing with the records of our everyday data, and how they will be able to obtain information from us, influence us or perhaps even control us in the future.
When it comes to freedom, Americans and Europeans bring completely different ideals and definitions to the table. While Americans want to liberate consumers, Europeans seek to protect them.
Until a few years, issues like data privacy and Internet policy were so unattractive in Germany that only backbenchers paid any attention to them. But now that they have become popular, no politician wants to be left out. Everyone is intent on regulating the future, and yet no one knows exactly what it will look like, or how it can be legally structured on the international level.
This lack of certainty has Berlin in an uproar. At first, Aigner pressed ahead with her broad attack against Google, Facebook and their peers. Then de Maizière upped the ante when he said that every company should be required to publish an annual summary of all the data it has stored. Even an Internet newbie knows that this would involve enormous volumes of data.