I worry about Germany and technology. I fear that protectionism from institutions that have been threatened by the internet — mainly media giants and government — and the perception of a rising tide of technopanic in the culture will lead to bad law, unnecessary regulation, dangerous precedents, and a hostile environment that will make technologists, investors, and partners wary of investing and working in Germany.
I worry, too, about Europe and technology. Germany’s antiprogress movement is spreading to the EU — see its court’s decision creating a so-called right to be forgotten — as well as to members of the EU — see Spain’s link tax.
I worry mostly about damage to the internet, its freedoms and its future, limiting the opportunities an open net presents to anyone anywhere. Three forces are at work endangering the net: control, protectionism, and technopanic.
Control is a global issue. Governments from China to Iran and Russia to Turkey are restricting what their citizens may see and say online. Telecom companies in the United States are trying to undermine the net’s neutral architecture to dictate users’ choices. Also in the United States, as revealed by Edward Snowden, the NSA has gained unprecedented control over lines of communication and staggering amounts of data about citizens of any nation.
Protectionism is at the core of the German problem. News publishers, led by Axel Springer and its CEO, Mathias Döpfner, have waged war on Google as their convenient bogeyman of the digital age. “Googlephobia,” The Economist calls the campaign, “short-sighted and self-defeating.” The publishers have used their considerable political power and influence to enlist government in their battle.
Thus Germany has extended copyright law with its Leistungsschutzrecht. The publishers’ apparent argument is that when Google quotes their work to link to it, the search engine is stealing their content. But these publishers know better. They surely realize, as Google vice president Rachel Whetstone has blogged, that the search engine sends 10 billion clicks a month to 60,000 publishers’ sites, giving them the opportunity to build relationships of value with those users.
The real problem is that newspapers, magazines, and television around the world have failed to build those rich and personal relationships and to mine the many opportunities the net brings them. They have insisted on trying to preserve their mass-media economics, which values only volume — that is, how many eyeballs see an ad. They resent that Google has changed the business model of media, offering users greater relevance and value and offering marketers a better deal based on performance rather than scale.
Their battle reached a crescendo of absurdity as (1) a Leistungsschutzrecht was written to forbid Google et al from quoting snippets of publishers’ content; (2) the legislation was amended to allow snippets; (3) publishers sued Google anyway for using snippets, demanding 11 percent of Google’s related revenue; (4) Google said it would stop using snippets from the litigious publishers; (5) those publishers accused Google of blackmailing them for taking down the snippets the publishers were themselves using to blackmail Google; (6) government officials laughed the publishers out of the cartel office; (7) most of the publishers capitulated because they need traffic from Google; (8) Springer pulled permission to publish snippets from Die Welt and three minor sites but not from its superbrand, Bild; and (9) Springer itself capitulated after confessing it lost too much traffic from Google and arguing this demonstrated Google’s crushing market power. The publishers have succeeded in humiliating themselves, their industry, and their nation.
German publishers have decided to compete not in the marketplace but in their own pages and in the Bundestag. They are using their power to influence the legislature to disadvantage their competitor and to force Google into negotiating some unspecified concessions. The effort brings unintended consequences. See how the war against Google has morphed into a war against the link in Spain, where publishers and government are threatening to tax the link to support failing legacy media companies. The link is the essential invention by Sir Tim Berners-Lee that underpins the entire World Wide Web. To tax the link is to kill the web.
Springer has also rallied publishers across Europe — plus News Corp. — to successfully browbeat the EU into rejecting its own antitrust settlement with Google. In this process, Springer’s Döpfner penned a hyperbolic screed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung accusing Google of a Bible’s worth of sins. He likened Google to the Mafia, Big Brother, and a Wagnerian dragon. He accused Google cofounder Larry Page of wanting to establish his own island nation, a personal technocracy. He claimed to be scared of Google.
This week the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for the breakup of Google. German MEP Andreas Schwab is a law-firm colleague of one of the architects of the Leistungsschutzrecht, Ole Jani. In a rare moment of political dissent from Germany’s Googlephobia, Kurt Lauk, president of the CDU Economics Council, called the move a “loser debate” and cautioned in the Handelsblatt: “We have the chance to participate in a 20-trillion market, if we do not tend to treat the internet and the digital revolution as a threat.” Even Günther Oettinger, European commissioner for the digital economy, mocked the idea of a Google breakup as a move that a planned economy would take, “not a market economy”.
Springer and various associations of publishers organized for this purpose have printed ads and made videos lobbying the EU, arguing that Google takes unfair advantage of its market strength. The publishers are promulgating a new standard, holding that it is not fair for Google to point to its own services and advertisers. But the publishers themselves could not live up to this standard. In their video attacking Google, the publishers suggest that you search for “shoes” on Google and you will find Google’s advertisers atop the page. You will then find everything else about shoes underneath. Go to Springer’s Bild.de, click on the “Schuhe” link atop its page, and you will find Bild’s advertisers — and nothing else. Should Der Spiegel be required to promote Focus? Wouldn’t that be fair?
It’s ironic that such bastions of economic and political conservatism as Springer and News Corp. now run to hide behind government’s skirts. Publishers certainly have Germany’s politicians marching to their drumbeat. German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has called for Google to be broken up. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas has called for Google to reveal its algorithm — an absurd and meaningless demand that would serve only the spammers. At this year’s German newspaper conference, Chancellor Merkel dutifully appeared to pay homage and lament her hosts’ shrinking fortunes and newsrooms. SPD MP Thomas Opperman curried favor there by vowing to limit Google’s market power.
Google is not the only target of the old institutions’ fear and wrath. In his FAZ letter, Döpfner likened Facebook to the Stasi. French taxi drivers led strikes against Uber. Germany banned Uber until a court overturned that action. Outgoing EC Vice President Neelie Kroes wisely cautioned that these are not the best ways to grapple with progress. “The fact is that digital technology is changing many aspects of our lives,” she said. “We cannot address these challenges by ignoring them, by going on strike, or by trying to ban these innovations out of existence.”
The third force against the net and progress is cultural, a moral panic that is often abetted and amplified by publishers and politicians. I call it technopanic.
Remember the reaction to Google Street View when it entered Germany. Politicians goaded almost 250,000 citizens to demand that Google blur their buildings in the service, inspiring the invention of a new word — the Verpixelungsrecht, or right to be pixelated — and leading my waggish German friends on Twitter to dub their land “Blurmany”. Google gave up extending Street View in Germany and no longer exercises its right to take pictures of public views from public places. If there is ever a presumption of privacy in public, I fear how that precedent could be used to restrict the right of citizens to record and report what they witness in public. I worry how it could be used to hamper journalism.
A far worse impingement of free speech comes with the right to be forgotten, another newly invented principle that has been espoused by European politicians and brought to reality by a European court. The decision tramples on others’ right to remember. As news organizations are all too quickly learning when links to their work disappear, the right to be forgotten also impinges on the right to free speech and a free press. Shouldn’t Europe of any place on earth be wary of attempts to rewrite history, to control knowledge, to allow powerful institutions — whether governments or corporations — to decree what must not be known? Shouldn’t the real lesson of our public embarrassments online be that we all make mistakes and we need to learn to be more tolerant of others?
In this discussion of privacy, I am often reminded that Germany’s recent political history — as well as its culture — are key factors in its dogged pursuit and protection of personal data. True enough. But at the same time we must have a balanced and unemotional discussion of not just the risks but also the benefits that come from technology and from the sharing, the openness, and the connections the net enables. For if we ban everything bad that could come of this change, we also forego its still-unknown benefits.
Before presuming that media and government speak for the citizens of Germany with their dark forebodings of technopanic and Googlephobia, it is good to keep in mind that German users have given Google its second highest market penetration for search in the world — about 50 percent higher than that in America. Germans use and one may assume like Google while media and government attack Google. But Google should not rest easy, for perception can all too quickly become reality.
The process we are witnessing is one society has gone through many times before when new technologies threaten change. When Gutenberg invented the press, some feared its product. In the 17th century, English writer Richard Atkyns worried that the press “filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as bullets.”
The telegraph provoked worries as well. Starting in the 1860s, The New York Times published letters fretting that “telegraphing is not such a business as women should seek to engage in” and warning of the dangers of romance and marriage by telegraph. In 1852, Telegraph Magazine reported on Congressional legislation to “prevent the telegraph from daily deluging the country with willful and mischievous falsehoods.” In 1858, an unnamed New York Times correspondent complained: “There can be no rational doubt that the telegraph has caused vast injury. Superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth, must be all telegraphic intelligence. Does it not render the popular mind too fast for the truth? Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes?” Or ten seconds?
This process of adjustment takes time. As much as it may seem that change is rushing past us at unprecedented speed — so much and so fast that we assume it must surely be nearly over — I will argue that we have only just begun. Consider printing’s timeline. Gutenberg set out to mimic scribes’ products and even their handwriting; printing at first was known as automated writing. It took 50 years for the book to develop the form we know it by today. It took a century, according to Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, for the book’s impact on society to be fully realized. It took a century and a half before anyone thought to invent what today we see as a self-evident product of the press: the newspaper. When the newspaper began, it mimicked the products and threatened the livelihoods of the private manuscript news correspondents that came before, just as digital news does to legacy news today. And, as with today’s digital enterprises, it took time, experimentation, and failure before the early newspaper industry could find sustainable business models.
We are only 20 years past the introduction of the commercial browser and thus the launch of the popular web in October 1994. It is too soon, far too soon, to define and thus limit the net. It is too soon to think we know what forms it will take and what business models will support value there. It is too soon to regulate it. It is too soon to divide its turf.
Thus far, I have been critical of Germany’s and Europe’s politicians and publishers for dominating the discussion of technology and change with their protectionism, their fear mongering, and the use of their precious journalistic influence and authority to their own self-interested ends. I will now fault Google for leaving the discussion to them.
As much as Dr. Döpfner may fear Google, it’s Google that often surprisingly acts like the timid, frightened beast. Google and the rest of Silicon Valley were too silent for too long about the NSA’s abuses of communications security and private data; about what technology companies did and did not do in cooperation with the NSA or under its court edicts; about what the NSA hid from technology companies; about the consequences of the NSA’s actions for trust in the net, the cloud, and American companies; and about the need to protect users and citizens with encryption and other security technology.
Google and other large American companies have tried to shrink away from the furor over their too-small tax payments in Europe and America as well. It is indeed their fiduciary duty to shareholders (disclosure: I am one) to reduce costs — and thus taxes — to a minimum. These companies should not be expected to set their own tax rates. What they are doing is apparently legal. But they would be wise to call on legislators and diplomats to do their jobs, rewriting tax statutes and treaties, creating fairness for both companies and other taxpayers. It is about time that Ireland has promised to end one of its tax loopholes. One could argue that some of the European animus directed at Google is antiamericanism or anticapitalism but the tax story undermines that excuse.
Google has not been wise or terribly clever in its dealings with publishers, including those that have now declared themselves its foes. Yes, Google has taken token steps to appease them — small projects to rethink the form of the article or develop micropayments. Google has no obligation to save publishers that cannot save themselves. But Google and the rest of Silicon Valley do have a moral obligation to society to bring the best of their thinking, their technology, their business insight — and, with investment, their tremendous wealth — to help build a healthy news ecosystem and with it an informed society. Google could teach news organizations new and old, small and big to move past their outmoded, mass-media ways and, like Google, to serve the public as individuals and communities with relevance and value.
Google’s biggest mistake has been its failure to adequately address eurotechnopanic on the cultural and especially the political level. The problem is that Googlers are engineers. Like Star Trek’s Spock, they abhor the illogical. But people and especially politicians are illogical. Europe teaches Google that it cannot ignore these forces. Google has an obligation — and it is in the company’s enlightened self-interest — to fight for the net, for its openness, for its freedoms, for its benefits.
Google should invest in innovation in Germany’s growing startup scene, helping to build a robust technology community that will join its fight to protect the net from others’ control, protectionism, and panic. This, too, is in Google’s enlightened self-interest.
Google should do a better job of listening and learning in Europe. It should also do a better job of teaching and explaining the benefits that can accrue to society and its citizens through the sharing of information and knowledge.
Finally, Google should share its excitement about the wonders of the net and technology. As I have researched earlier episodes of technopanic, I have found not only moments of irrational fear but also moments of irrational exuberance that new technologies have inspired. When the first telegraph message was sent under the Atlantic, linking Europe with America, New Yorkers took to the streets with parades and fireworks while President James Buchanan declared in his first transoceanic telegram: “May the Atlantic Telegraph under the blessing of Heaven prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations.”
Through the industrial era, as new technologies emerged, nations held world’s fairs, their pavilions filled with amazement at inventions from electricity to light bulbs to motion pictures, from steam engines to automobiles to rocket ships, from telegraphs to telephones to videophones. Yes, there were fears of the change these technologies would bring — or rather, of what we people could do with them. But there was also a time and place to be amazed and to let imagination run with the possibilities. There was wonder.
Disclosure: I own Google, Apple, and Amazon shares and Google has paid travel expenses to speak at its events but never a fee.