Photo Gallery: Germany's Digital Divide

Foto: Sean Gallup/ Getty Images

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.

A Reputation as a Data Hoarder

Citizens have long moved past the point of using the Internet as a source of information and consumption. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have turned the Web into the dominant means of communication. More than 400 million people worldwide are linked together via Facebook.

According to a study by industry association Bitkom, 61 percent of Germans want to see stricter regulations on the Web. However there is a difference in attitudes between the generations, as legal expert Gerhart Baum points out. "Younger people are relatively relaxed in their approach to the Internet," he says. "But it is precisely the users of Facebook and (Germany-based social networking platform) StudiVZ who need to be sensitized to the problems."

Until now, the German government hasn't exactly been viewed as a trustworthy authority on the Internet. Whether it was the high court's recent overturning of the data retention law or controversial online surveillance of suspects' computers by police, former Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen's idea to impose mandatory blocking of child pornography or data privacy scandals at companies like Deutsche Bahn and Deutsche Telekom, which are either fully or partly owned by the government, Germany's political leadership has had a reputation in the online community for being a data hoarder, whose motives are either clueless or evil, depending who you believe.

Wakeup Call

So far the clearest indicator that the Berlin establishment is not on top of the data privacy issue was the fact that the Pirate Party, which advocates Internet freedoms, was able to get 2 percent of the national vote in last September's parliamentary election. That was a wakeup call for Germany's major parties, which have now identified common enemies across the Atlantic: the Internet empires of Facebook, Apple and Google. They "know what interests us, what we buy and who our friends are," says Aigner, in her role as minister of consumer protection. Google Street View is her current bête noire.

The state parliament in Kiel, the capital of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, has already objected to Google's prying vehicles. The city of Bielefeld, also in northern Germany, opposes the publication of photos of municipal buildings. And several thousand German citizens have written to Google to object to the publication of their data.

Last June, state data-privacy advocates managed, for the first time, to wrest concessions from Google that the Americans must still see as disconcerting. In a 13-point list, the company provided "binding assurances" that it would obscure faces and license plates, delete the corresponding raw data and make public its data processing procedure.

Aigner also wants to restrict the allowable height of the cameras to no more than two meters above the ground, so that the company cannot peer over garden hedges. The fact that another Google service, Google Earth, has been peering into people's front yards for years apparently escaped the minister's notice.

Individual Objections

Aigner also says that it is unacceptable for citizens to have to go online to determine whether their house is being photographed and placed onto the Web. She wants Google to implement each individual objection before being allowed to makes its Street View service available in Germany. "Google has to inform the general public about the project and about ways to object to it, through ads in the press, for example," says Aigner. Even the world biggest Internet company, she says, has to accept the fact that a portion of society doesn't use the Internet.

Even as Aigner asks these key questions, the political sphere is not offering any answers. Nevertheless, each cabinet minister now feels responsible for addressing the issues, and about 20 political committees devoted to the subject of the Internet have already been formed. Although there is no lack of passion, expertise is in somewhat shorter supply.

The CDU cannot "be seen as incompetent and uninterested" when it comes to the Internet, Roland Koch, the governor of the western state of Hesse, said recently. August-Wilhelm Scheer, head of industry group Bitkom, says: "One has the impression that, for some cabinet members, the Internet consists primarily of issues relating to sex and crime." According to Scheer, politicians are exploiting popular issues in a superficial way in the hope of scoring political points.

For Peter Kruse, a network expert in the northern city of Bremen, German politicians' newfound interest in the Internet is a result of their "intuitive sense for power shifts." In the online world, he says, it is not clear who is in control. Politicians, who tend to think in terms of power and influence, are now aspiring to get things under control and put themselves in the driver's seat, Kruse believes. But he also believes that the ideas that Aigner and her peers are bringing to the table regarding the Internet are naïve.

Misunderstandings on All Sides

It is a new debate filled with misunderstandings on all sides. That applies also to the corporations involved, which like to point out that many politicians are not even prepared to engage in technical conversations about the Internet, and that even if they are, they are often clueless as to how Internet platforms work and make money.

Google's recently reacted in a very simplistic way to German objections by having some of its young creative employees paint the Street View cars, which were previously painted a sinister black, in bright colors. They apparently thought that this would somehow de-demonize the service.

Facebook is at least publicly signaling its understanding of the attacks. "The Internet is revolutionizing our society, and it's understandable that politicians are worried," says Richard Allan. He is, in a sense, the online network's chief diplomat for Europe, and he spends a lot of time traveling and listening to people's fears and frustrations, as well as explaining to politicians how Facebook actually works. It helps that Allan was once a politician himself, as a member of the British parliament.

Facebook takes cultural sensitivities seriously, says Allan, but he insists that many in Europe are under the false impression that it is the Internet companies that profit most from the relationship between firms and their users. "It feels different to us," says Allan, who talks of a powerful Web community. "If it doesn't accept something, it lets us know -- millions of times over."

Vast Amounts of Data

The magnitude and power of users is currently the company's strongest argument against political regulatory ambitions. In the past, says Allan, politicians have expended much of their effort dealing with large corporations that, like telephone companies, own vast amounts of data. "But now millions of individual citizens who publicize their data with us would be regulated," says Allan. He notes that although Facebook offers its users a platform to express themselves, "we don't see our users' content as ours." In that case, who should be held responsible for the data?

The worries coming from Germany must seem quaint to big American companies like Facebook and Google. The concern, for example, that these companies, thanks to the ability to link data, know more about their users than individuals believe they have revealed "is somewhat foreign to us," says US Web expert David Weinberger. "We aren't overly concerned that computers somewhere are piecing things together using algorithms. They're just computers."

Google's Street View project, for example, has not triggered any significant outcry in the United States. US regulators are more concerned about whether all Internet providers and users have the same ability to access the Web. The call for more regulation to improve data privacy, on the other hand, is "rather European," says Weinberger.

Nevertheless, US companies must take it seriously. Even in the United States, a class action suit was recently filed against Google for violating privacy, because the search engine transferred data from its Gmail email service to its new social network Buzz without asking users.

New Laws

Canadian lawmakers recently required Facebook to promise improved data privacy. A parliamentary official stridently voiced her concern that Buzz might not satisfy Canadian privacy protection standards. Spain recently introduced a rule requiring new Facebook users to be at least 14.

In Italy, a court recently sentenced three Google executives to six months in prison after high-school students in Turin placed a video online, using Google, in which they abused a handicapped teenager. The court accused the executives of defamation and violation of privacy.

The German actions have seemed somewhat helpless by comparison. This became all the more obvious last week when the Bundestag approved the establishment of its Internet commission of inquiry. FDP politician Jimmy Schulz, speaking to an almost deserted floor, called the commission a "milestone for politics in Germany." Jens Koeppen, a member of the commission who belongs to the CDU, also holds another office: He is the head of the parliament's classic car club.

The new commission is expected to submit its recommendations by 2012. To that end, 17 experts will soon join the 17 members of parliament appointed to the commission.

The commission "will wear itself out in the attempt to catch up with a train that has already left the station," says network expert Peter Kruse, noting that a commission that is already behind the curve cannot hope to keep up with the dynamics of the Internet. "Understanding the Web cannot be the commission's outcome; it has to be its precondition."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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