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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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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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Barack Obama in Berlin: Take a closer look on this city

Today, I attended the speech of Barack Obama at Street of the 17th of June/Siegessäule. As I did, another estimated 200.000 people came to hear Obama speak. On my way back, on an escalator at central station, I was asked by two nice elderly US citizens why I’ve been there since they could simply not understand what’s on a u.s. presidential candidate so interesting to so many people here.

My answer was just half of the truth, I have to admit. I said that I studied political science and one of my main subjects was political communication. I was interested in the setting, the scenery and the speech of a presidential candidate abroad. But thinking about it later, I have to add some more remarks (even though this post is going to have some lengths). Continue Reading »

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Short Study: Kurt Beck has no friends - Politics and the Web 2.0 in Germany

With Markus Beckedahl of netzpolitik.org, one of Germanys leading bloggers, I published a short study on Politics and the Web 2.0 in Germany (PDF, german) today.

Our key findings were: German politicians and parties are yet unable to adapt online campaigning techniques such as established in the US or France for example. Some hope seems to lie in YouTube activities, but neither none of the parties nor the leading politicians has a MySpace profile. Some party groups do exist on StudiVZ, the leading german facebook copycat, and on Facebook itself.

If you are interested, I could translate some more of the findings. Leave a comment and I will try.

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What’s social nowadays?

Everything seems to be social. We have OpenSocial, CorporateSocialResponsibility, SocialNetworks, Social Democrats (diminishing) and Social Welfare (diminishing, too).

I’ve been to SocialCamp in Berlin this weekend (my now main employer newthinking communications was one of the co-hosts). Two days with the aim to find out which web 2.0 techniques may work for the purposes of nonprofits and non-governmental organisations. And two days full of talks, discussions and politics.

Some people from NGOs turned out to be great and very interested in using the web as their platform, from call-to-action to (in Germany still tough) web based fundraising solutions. Some so called social entrepreneurs were on stage and some of them were more or less deterrently in their concepts, behaviours and interests.

It’s always a bit tricky when it comes to politics. I’m convinced that you got to deal with reality when trying to change the world in the direction you’d like to see it more than with utopian visions. So I was a little bit undiplomatic sometimes, I guess, demanding people first to inform themselves and judging later. I’m sorry if I was rude.

All in all, it was a good weekend with a lot of nice people from different corners of the field of the more or less social anything. Hope to meet some of you guys again, soon. Thanks!

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Hacking goes Pop

The german Chaos Computer Club got some very benevolent media coverage during the last days. The Hackers club with more than quarter of a century of history is going popular while topics like data retention, fingerprints, cctv and other surveillance technics as well as voting computers are earning increasing attentiveness. It’s been a long debate among german hackers whether they should do public lobbying for or against anything.

During the past two years the CCC was appearing in the media, in the constitutional court, in the parliaments committees. The hackers have, while a lot of them still prefers to stay in the dark nevertheless, made a decision to use the system which is using the technology hackers strongly believe to be the better experts in. Well, expertise is nothing bad. But it will be very interesting for how long their public engagement will last.

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The Cruelty of Reality

You can’t imagine how a paragraph like this feels in Germany:

We recently got an alert from the Frank Lautenberg Senate campaign announcing the creation of an “Action Center” on their website, but were disappointed to see that it’s the same web 1.0 approach: tell-a-friend, sign-a-petition, make-a-donation (while we collect your email addresses). (Techpresident.com)

I do not know any german politicians web site having those three elements implemented in a way it works. Even though you won’t believe it. Feeling least developed.

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