In Germany, taming the web

As U.S. businesses like Google and Facebook intensify their presence in Europe, a sleeping giant stirs.
Written by Shannon Smith, Correspondent (Berlin)

BERLIN – As early as 2004, Markus Beckedahl sensed a hole in German public discourse about the Internet.

His blog Netzpolitik.org along with Spreeblick.com counted among the first big blogs in Germany, serving as hubs for heated discussions on internet politics, technology and culture. But their mainstream contemporaries weren't catching on.

"We were missing a place where we could come together as bloggers in the flesh and reflect on what was happening here. Germans are always a little skeptical of new things, and the blogosphere was new in Germany at that time."

Beckedahl and his peers responded in 2007 with re:publica, a Berlin-based gathering of bloggers and other digital pioneers, which quickly attracted members of the city's fringe hackers and activist communities. Six years on, re:publica hosts more than 4,500 attendees including bloggers, social media experts, managers, designers, businesses and other creatives to discuss the current trajectory of the online world.

Such events have been instrumental in facilitating a dialogue that was once slow in coming in Germany. But now that the conversation is in full swing, politicians have begun to flex their muscles regarding the continent's strongest digital concerns like data privacy, free speech and copyright – and Germany and Europe appear poised to profoundly influence the future of global internet politics.

U.S.-based companies such as Google and Facebook have come under fire in Europe for multiple privacy and intellectual property rights violations over the past few years, which ignited swift public and political response.

One of the most high-profile cases involved several German towns, which protested the photographing of their streets for Google’s Street View service in 2008. As a result, the search giant agreed to blur the online image of any address at the request of its resident.

More recently, Bettina Wulff, the wife of disgraced former German president Christian Wulff, filed a law suit against Google to remove defaming autocomplete suggestions, which implied she had once been involved in prostitution. Though Google routinely alters its autocomplete terms independent of its algorithm in the face of powerful lobbies or its own business needs, Spiegel Online criticized that it stops at protecting personal rights.

And just last week, the U.S. government supported Google and Facebook by sending a delegation to the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to lobby against an E.U. data privacy law that would strengthen the rights of users to delete their own data. Backing the so-called “right to be forgotten”, E.U. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s views align with the high value Europe tends to place on the right to data privacy.

"The U.S. relies much more on self-regulation and responsibly-acting private entities, etc… and this is considered much better than having the state interfere there,” German journalist and blogger Falk Lueke told SmartPlanet. “That’s different here: Germans trust in the state, but they don't trust businesses."

Lueke points out how the "Not-From-Here Syndrome" applies to Europe:

"As a German, you don’t have a share in Google, but you do have a share in the German government. You can't change the CEO of Google, but you can cast your vote against the chancellor. So if you want to enforce your privacy rights over Google in Germany, how are you going to go about that?"

As Germans and other Europeans become more vocal about their concerns and values, the big players have responded. Google funded the opening of the Berlin-based Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society with 4.5 million ($5.8 million) last year. Meanwhile, the company has funded a number of other forums on the subject of privacy including an installment of its Big Tent series this week.

Google also recently opened an official Berlin office, which houses much of its lobbying operations in Germany. Soon to follow in 2013 is the opening of the Factory, a hub for local upstart companies, with some of Berlin’s biggest success stories such as 6wunderkinder and SoundCloud already slated for residence. As a high-profile partner, Google plans to channel its $1-million investment in Berlin's startup scene through events and resources at the location.

But the German propensity for skepticism remains, a fact apparent in the myriad discussions that persist at local, national and continental levels. Markus Beckedahl is confident re:publica will have plenty of ideas to toss around over the next few years.

"Europe is one of the biggest markets in the world, meaning that regulations here could have a profound effect on regulations worldwide," Beckedahl said.

"Some activists in the U.S. have told me they hope Europeans can push things like data protection through in hopes that the rest of the whole world benefits in the end."

PHOTOS: Flickr / re:publica

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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