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Search History: Google and Germany, Part 3

Search History: Google and Germany, Part 3

Google is not the Stasi or the SS; no German has gone on record making those comparisons. Still, Google is an international behemoth that unabashedly scans mail, takes pictures of homes, and keeps detailed records of what people do on the Internet and with whom they communicate. There is no evidence that Google has ever done anything malicious with the information it collects -- but it could. And Germans don't take that lightly.

By David Vranicar
07/14/11 5:00 AM PT

Search History: Google and Germany, Part 2

Google's privacy-conscious initiatives are often born in Germany. Heeding the objections to Street View, which rained down from national authorities and wary Germans, Google introduced an opt-out feature that allowed people to officially request that their homes be blurred out of the Street View -- nearly 250,000 applications were submitted.

Google also hatched an engineering team devoted to privacy protection in Munich. The group has devised privacy tools for Google's Chrome Web browser, and created Google Dashboard, a blatant nod toward transparency that "summarizes the data associated with each product you use."

"It's not a coincidence," Lena Wagner, communications director for Google Germany in Hamburg, told TechNewsWorld. "We are always looking for people who are interested in a topic they would like to work on, and since privacy is a big topic here in Germany, we've found many German engineers who are interested in working on this -- finding logical solutions to privacy concerns. That's why we came up with a team in Munich."

Different Default Modes

Google is not the Stasi or the SS; no German has gone on record making those comparisons. Still, Google is an international behemoth that unabashedly scans mail, takes pictures of homes, and keeps detailed records of what people do on the Internet and with whom they communicate.

There is no evidence that Google has ever done anything malicious with the information it collects. Indeed, the company's unofficial slogan is "Don't be evil." But Google is so big and so entrenched that it could be evil. And that's something Germans don't take lightly.

"The default in Germany is that everything is forbidden unless it's specifically allowed," said the Independent Centre for Privacy Protection's Hansen. "In the U.S., often it's the other way around: Everything is allowed unless it is explicitly forbidden somewhere. So this is a different way to start. In Germany, there is a default value for data protection."

America, the birthplace of Google, does indeed have different default values. For instance, when Google kicked off Street View in the U.S., it didn't even blur out people's faces, let alone their homes, Wagner said. And while Germany is busy deciding whether or not to levy fines against people who use Google Analytics, the website apps.gov -- which is run by the U.S. General Services Administration, a federal agency -- actually offers Google Analytics for download, touting it as "an enterprise-class Web analytics solution that provides actionable insights into website traffic and marketing effectiveness."

Germany's government is considering legal action against those who use Google Analytics; America's government is encouraging people to use it. But maybe this shouldn't be surprising. After all, what is Google Analytics besides a census of Internet users?

A Culture of Angst

"All of these feelings have deep traces in the political consciousness and political culture of a country," said the University of Hamburg's Hasebrink. "And definitely this case of the census in the late 80s. It has these roots, at least for those people who 25 years ago were in their 20s. They are today in their late 40s or 50s -- which means they are the people in power and are in the parliament. They have gone through this, and their political identity is influenced by this, and this generation is sometimes really irritated about the new freedom of the Internet and the lack of regulation."

"Google is transatlantic," noted historian Jarausch. "It's from far away, it's a big machine, it has a kind of American surface where somehow it has this image of some kind of technological Orwellianism. Obviously, Google is about something completely different than the Stasi was about, but there is a certain amount of transference of anxiety."

For proof that this anxiety is real, look no further than grad student Pflaume. Pflaume isn't old enough to remember the Stasi, let alone the Gestapo. He is part of the first generation of Germans in more than 100 years to not experience dastardly data collecting.

This, in theory, could relieve him of the reservations that plagued WWII survivors, or those who lived through the nightmares of East Germany. But even if Pflaume wasn't personally shaped by these events, his country's culture and history were. And to hear him talk is proof that Germany has yet to rid itself of the residue of data collection.

Pflaume wondered aloud what would happen if Google opened a health insurance company. What might Google Health Insurance do with his email from yesteryear? What about that one time he looked up directions to a hospital? Google would have everything -- or at least too much for Pflaume's liking.

That may sound ridiculous, and Pflaume conceded as much. But if history is any indication, he's going to keep his GMX.net account.


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