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.