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Learnings from the Economist debate

I was asked to contribute as a guest author to economist.com/debate on online privacy regulation, which I happily did. There are two kinds of learnings for me: the first is a matter of the subject, the second a matter of online debates.

Regarding the first issue, I have to admit that it seems I underestimated the mistrust in elected representatives compared to the mistrust in private companies, which are often not to be held accountable in any way as long as no privacy legislation gives you a right to hold them accountable. In Germany we mistrust the government a lot, but at least they are the elected untrustworthy. Since there is little reason to trust in binding corporate rules or other self-regulatory approaches for a whole and non-definable branch such as ‘all data processing and storing companies’ I don’t see the possibility of something like a third way besides privacy legislation and international cooperation on both the standards but in particular on the enforcement issue too.

The second issue is that I would really like to see the format of the Economist debate on German language newspaper or magazine websites as well. The only thing I am not that happy with yet is the voting system. The Economists question ‘agree with the motion’ is an invitation for campaigning (I’ve seen ‘click-no-campaigning’ on Twitter, and it was interesting to see that most of the written comments were mostly pro while the vote was very narrow in the end). The number of how many changed their minds on the issue during the debate is only visible as a mouseover – this could be enhanced, since convincing someone of a different opinion seems to be much more interesting than how many readers agree with the one or the other side of the fence in a non-representative way. Maybe there could be a change to the voting model that only on the first one or two days the voting is open and after that you are only allowed to change your opinion. This could help avoiding campaigning effects a little at least, I guess.

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How would Google fail?

Have you ever heard a talk of Jeff Jarvis? He’s a brilliant speaker, invited to many conferences due to that. He’s able to provoke the audience, to convince and to influence - by stating the obvious. But I never heard anything either new or even seriously complex from Mr. Jarvis. He has been talking a lot on Media issues, and most of it was easy to strip down to ‘change has come but the media is not prepared’. He focuses on stating the obvious, predicting the present and giving the wonderful advice ‘think yourself’. Have you ever read his popular ‘What would google do?’ He recommends to focus on your customers needs. Oh, well. That’s already written in one of the oldest book my family owns from the 1840s, a how-to-guide for merchants. But who focuses on the customer? Google? Well…

Jeff Jarvis moved on to the ‘paradoxon’ of the german privacy discussion. Well, Jeffs German is not that bad, so he can read a lot in my mother tongue and probably has some idea about the german mindset. He has seen naked people on the beach and in the spa, maybe even in public parks sometimes (most people don’t do so-called FKK anyway, but thats a different story). But what he does not understand at all is that the constitutional right to informational self-determination is not only privacy, but also publicness. It’s your choice, as long as it does not affect others. The modern discussion of this particular right started with this opinion from 1972, provided by law scientists on request of the Ministry of Interior. Since then, the discussion has faced many twists and for a long time the question of the states role in the privacy and security relationship prevailed over the question of personally identifiable information held by private companies. It is one of the most difficult questions how to maintain the right balance between participating in the public and at the same time not being discriminated by hidden aggregation of data which leads to an asynchronous level of information about who knows how much about you, which is seen to be ultimately a scenario where citizens are jailed in information collected and processed by others without proper counter measures.

But time changes and now we face a highly problematic asnychronous scenario: companies from countries may collect and process your data without proper safeguards and without your knowledge. Of course you may say, everybody knows that Google or Facebook are residing in the US. But many people just don’t know they are not protected as much as they were if it was a German company. Being a consumer should not turn out to be a full time job and not to study international law. From a consumer perspective, there is a simple understanding: if you want my money, my data, my knowledge - whatever: my law is applicable and enforcable. As soon as a company aims at the consumers market, it has to obey to these rules, whether they like it or not. If you decide not to do so, it’s fine. If you decide you want to have the laws changed, that’s fine, too. But first you got to change the law. Everything else is not only disrespectful behavior, it’s also a threat to consumers.

Being a brilliant speaker is not enough for a discussion such as this. You got do dig into the analysis of what’s going on, what’s the state you are coming from and what’s actually the goal you have - and what are the values you build your theory on.

I heard a lot of complaints of citizens who simply do not understand what Google does and what it means and why a company might be allowed to take pictures in the public. They feel insecure, badly protected and at the mercy of a company they have no tools to enforce their rights against them. You have to treat their concerns in a serious way. Not by making fun of them if some of them might be unreasonable. Not by putting the pressure on them as some people want to do. Help them understand and help them enforce their rights. ‘What would Google do?’, as shallow as it is, should be rewritten by Jeff Jarvis by using the example of lack of understanding of what’s going on in Germany regarding privacy concerns. The new chapter should be named: ‘Fail like Google does’. Yes, the German Paradoxon is a paradoxon. But paradoxon has two meanings: either something is contradictory or it just appears (para) to be. The German Paradoxon in my opinion is the second, not the first.

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Google, hitting the High Street

Last week, Google announced that it will launch StreetView for Germany this year. At the same time, they said to publish a new tool for objections against having your house or flat or the one you are living in right now (yes, many houses and flats are just rented in Germany) shown there.

An interesting debate. And it’s very exhaustive at the same time for me, personally. There is no easy yes or no to a service such as Street View. The company made so many mistakes with the whole concept in a German view, that it can not just ignore it. Now it’s a heated political debate and I think I’m not exaggerating when thinking that if companies like G don’t become more professional they are running into serious trouble soon. The moment for the announcement, during summer holiday season, with many unclear half-statements and the german speaker staff unable or maybe just not allowed to answer many questions raised, unable to react even to the most obvious bullshit statements (including such as tv stars talking about street view as a live video service. no, it’s not tv to be blamed here.) the company failed miserably on making this debate a debate on data protection, publicness and other main questions. Looks as if there is not mainly a kind of gap between privacy culture but mainly a difference in those available and those in command.

Now the debate in Germany started to turn away a bit from Street View itself and more to the general approach and views on data protection, privacy and publicness in the digital world. Without big G, for now. It’s disturbing, if a CEO of a huge IT companyis talking quark (curd cheese) such as ‘young adults should change their name when turning 18′, if a company known for it’s software is failing to test their tools compatibility with IE8, if they lack the transparency they claim to promote elsewhere. They still rely on their old model of ‘if I run my service in the US, I’m out of trouble’. No, you are going to run into serious trouble in the long run instead. And maybe it’s better you learn quickly that being huge and potentially influential does not equal to being grown up.

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Blumenkübel - A meme during Saure Gurken-Zeit

In case you wonder about one of the trending topics on Twitter right now: Blumenkübel means flower bucket.

This german meme was created based on an article by a regional newspaper of Münster (Westphalia), reporting in a dramatic story that a flower bucket on the street in front of an old people’s home was destroyed during the night.

Now this very sad story of the very sad people in Neuenkirchen has become part of the German twittersphere, including a tweet by second national tv program that there might be good arguments for sending a special report on the flower bucket issue tonight right after the evening news. Scientists tweeted, they’d like to conduct surveys on Blumenkübel case related issues, the official account of the very popular savings banks announced that their household insurance would cover destroyed flower buckets and the distance selling giant Otto gave recommendation, that you could buy new flower buckets online there.

During summer holidays, newspapers and tv stations often face serious problems finding important news to report. We call it “Saure Gurken-Zeit” (translates as “sour gherkins term”) or “Sommerloch” (summer hole, both translates best as silly season). There’s a german saying “and in china, a sack of rice fell”, meaning could(n’t) care less. Or, as the original posting on twitter reads: “In Neuenkirchen, a flower bucket fell.”

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Somewhat better than Flattr?

About one year ago I sat in my kitchen, sketching a platform for a convertible attention currency. I had just stopped working on the idea of a Berlin web magazine, because I found that the economic situation is lacking the infrastructure to run something like that in a way I’d like to use it myself. I didn’t want to have subscriptions, paywalls, I didn’t want to have to sell advertisements as content or any other things like that. Therefore I thought about enhancing the infrastructure a little.

The first thoughts were something like this: usually we are paying with our attention on the web. But attention doesn’t make you pay your rent, it doesn’t even make you pay your meals. Even in heavily link recommendation based online environments such as Twitter or Facebook, people are comfortable with getting something ‘for free’ and at the same time, to say they’d pay for some services if there was some kind of easy way to do so.

I worked as a journalist for years. My most difficult story ever had to be published on a blog and I didn’t make a single dime out of it, since the publishers I usually worked for had gotten ‘cold feet’. It was read by 30.000 unique visitors within one week in 2006, just by mouth-to-mouth hints. So there had to be a way to give all those who really do something for their users, their readers, their listeners an easy option to earn some money. And at the same time, to give a little kick to those who still don’t get the net.

To make this already too long story short: I thought of a platform where:
1. you as a user might register with your email address and either your credit card data or a bank account for direct debit (which is very popular, with consumer friendly laws for it in Germany).
2. you as a content producer might register to get your share of the cake.
3. you as a content producer might register to pitch for unclaimed money (explanation follows below).

You may call me Scribbleangelo now. Well. Not. on Twitpic

For the user, the system would be very easy: you see something you like on the web. You decide: this is something I’d like to pay a decent amount for. Maybe 5 cents, maybe a Euro, maybe 10. To prevent fraud there should be no more than 20 Euros per item allowed. In fact this works just like bookmarking with an amount for you.
At the end of the month you receive an email including details on your proposed payments and the possibility to change amounts or to drop your spendings (maybe the blogger you chose turned out to be a millionaire and you might want to spend it in a different way).
So you decide how much you pay, who do you think should get that money and have provided a decent web address for the database.

For the content producer the system has to be much more complex: you are claiming that you own a content by a mechanism similar to the Technorati blog claim mechanism - you register, you get an instant personalized picture and install it at your server in the root directory you are responsible for. Then you click: claim. After that, all content below this directory will be counted as yours and any money which users want to give you will reach you (except someone else claims a subdirectory of it as an ‘owner’).

All money from the users is collected by a foundation. It only has one goal: to get rid of the money again, either by transferring it to the owners of the content which users wanted to pay for or by doing something different with it - a board of trusted people should decide on how to spend the money, maybe by granting fellowships for journalism, for arts or other ways of helping those who want to produce for the nets public. Only the foundations own expenses for administration should be covered by some of the unclaimed money.

Now Flattr is out there and Kachingle, too. I tried to get in touch with Peter Sunde earlier this year, he didn’t reply. Since I think there’s not space for another competitor and I really didn’t have time to get this run, I now decided to abandon it and just publish my thoughts. If you like it, tell others and get them towards the direction I thought it should be done.

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Interview with Evgeny Morozov

Is the internet really a tool for promoting democracy in authoritarian states? Is it just a relay of the existing societies mechanisms? Markus Beckedahl of netzpolitik.org asked me whether I’d like to participate in an interview with Evgeny Morozov for his podcast series. Evgeny, a Belarus born researcher at Georgetown University and contributing editor at Foreign Policy gave us a lot of insights in his very interesting research. Thanks a lot for both, the interview and the opportunity to do it.

The interview is available as MP3 (62 MB) and OGG Vorbis (46 MB).

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Are you feeling uncomfortable?

I’m so sorry. I didn’t keep you up to date. Didn’t post about what I’m doing at work, what I’m feeling, what’s going on in my life.

Oh, well. I never did. But since you didn’t complain, you didn’t miss me. Right? Doesn’t matter. Now this blog is going to come back. Maybe just for a moment, maybe for a longer time. Starting with a question to the few english language readers of my twitter account: do you think I should set up a second, english language account? I guess it would be more serious than my sometimes mixed but mainly german one. I guess it would be the more professional one. But: do you feel uncomfortable with reading messages in a language you hardly understand, talking about topics you luckily don’t have to deal with? As a first step, I promise to write this blog a little more frequent. Which is easy to do.

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No links, 2, 3, 4

A song makes it way around the globe. Ooops! It wasn’t meant to do that?!

Once something is published on the internet, you won’t get it back anymore. That’s the lesson the management of the german belch rock band Rammstein has to learn, which is better known for being a chanty choir for the germanic savage style loving non native german speakers, bawling texts on a level such as Hate is my mate, love is a dove, breath and death, bread and dead. (fake lyrics) but will be understood in parts only by their audience.

Now these bards of banality and their wonderful management are on the way to become the new Metallica: everybody who writes too much about the song, the leaking and so on is facing legal action, according to reports. Lars Ulrich is proud of them, for sure.

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Too small to meter

I don’t have to complain to Chris Anderson. I heard his book ‘free’ mostly on the subway. The audio book was free in it’s german double meaning of ‘umsonst’ (free of charge/without any effects) in any meaning. The time I spent was ‘too small to meter’, just to quote Andersons main thesis.

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What’s a friend on Facebook today?

When I entered Facebook, some friends were quickly available. Ok, most of them did not apply to the same friendship scheme as my ‘real life friends‘ — the main qualification was: we both used facebook and met before. Those were the days of early adopters.

Now these days are gone. And in my facebook friends list there is a wild mixture of friends, friends and friends.

Some of the early facebook friends have become real ones, too. And some did not. But I did remove only a few. Long time real friends joined facebook later. Some were astonished about my friends there. They had never met them at my birthday parties (I don’t publish my date of birth on social networks, but that’s a totally different story).

Some of my ‘real’ friends feel a little confused or even distorted by my communication with early facebook friends. Sometimes we sound a little too much techie, I was told. And the early facebook friends are laughing about people who obviously don’t see the difference between the inbox/outgoing and the commentary function on status updates or wall posts.

Don’t know yet what a facebook friend is and how to deal with that. Any ideas? I already do have several lists in which I sorted my friends.

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