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Public choices

Private Germans
The Germans are a deeply private people. That’s not just because of their political history in the last century. i think it comes from something deeper in their soul. My German grandfather-in-law jumped ship in the united states in 1923 and brought with him an abiding sense of privacy. “You mustn’t tell people that,” our Opa used to say, wagging his crooked, disapproving, and protective finger. “No one needs to know that.” Germans are hardly alone in grappling with issues surrounding privacy. but the debate in Germany is more strident than anywhere else i can find, making it an ideal laboratory in which to study our longing for privacy amid the inexorable shift to publicness brought on by the social net. Google Maps’ street View has caused quite the fuss in the country. since Google’s camera-equipped cars took to German streets, there has been an escalating chorus of complaints from government regulators and media. Politicians demanded that the faces of people photographed on those streets and even the images of license plates and building numbers—all captured in public—be obscured, which Google did. in Hamburg, Google agreed to notify neighborhoods before the street View car came to town (better hide Oma und die Kinder ! Google’s in town!). Germany’s federal minister of food, agriculture, and consumer protection, ilse aigner, told the German newsmagazine Focus in 2010 that street View was “a comprehensive photo offensive” that “is nothing less than a million-fold violation of the private sphere.” 1 she wanted Google to obtain the consent of each citizen before posting photos of the fronts of their homes. Her office provided an online form for citizens to demand that street View photos of their homes be obscured. i saw inter-


Public Parts

est in Germany for a u.s. researcher’s software that automatically erases only people from street View images—leaving a ghostly, neutron-bomb landscape where the people disappear but the buildings remain. (it wasn’t perfect; one could still see the occasional dog and leash with no owner.)2 Politicians in the city of leverkusen proposed charging media companies such as Google €150 for every kilometer street View pictured.3 it didn’t help Google’s cause when the company admitted that its cars had not just been taking pictures but were capturing data from the Wi-Fi networks they passed in Germany and elsewhere. The capture of that data was an inexcusable screw-up and a Pr calamity, but it was hardly a conspiracy aimed at killing privacy. There was no conceivable commercial use for the bits of communication and addresses passing over residents’ open Wi-Fi connections on a random moment on a random day on a random German street. Nonetheless, hostility ensued. in 2010, the Google street View car was vandalized in Germany. in austria, a seventy-year-old man threatened the car with a garden pick.4 a comedy show on the German tV network ZDF aired a spoof about a new service: “Google Home View.” a Google Man in a Google hat with a camera in hand tells unsuspecting Germans at their front doors that Google is going to take pictures inside their homes—and some acquiesce. “You’re doing this all over Germany?” asks the resident. “Every house all over Germany, every room,” says Google Man. “Everything is going to be photographed, and everything is going to be on the internet.” sounds plausible enough. because of data protection laws requiring the pixelization—the digital obscuring—of faces, Google Man gives one home’s residents black bars to hold in front of their eyes—“pixel boards,” he calls them. at another house, a woman turns the tables on Google Man and takes a picture of his car. Google Man holds the pixel board in front of his eyes and threatens, “Well, if you’re not going to play along, we’ll discontinue your Google!” Judging from the laughter in the studio, the audience got the joke even if the subjects—and regulators—didn’t.5 if only the privacy fight over Google were always so apparent in its irony. in 2007, Germany’s government debated a law that would have required Google to retain the verified names and addresses of Google

Jeff Jarvis


users and their data to aid in criminal investigations. so on the one hand, German politicians said Google was violating citizens’ privacy by gathering data. On the other hand, they were demanding that Google hold on to citizens’ private communications should government wish to use that information against them. Google, appropriately horrified, threatened to shut down its email service rather than enable government spying on citizens in a country that had all too much experience with the practice.6 a common explanation of Germans’ passionate advocacy of privacy is, of course, that the secret police of the Nazis and the East German stasi spied on citizens in their private lives. but in this case, Google proved the better protector of privacy than the modern German government. by the time street View opened in Germany in late 2010, 244,000 people had submitted the necessary forms to demand that Google pixelate their homes and even offices—that is, 3 percent of the 8.5 million homes in the twenty cities where the service launched.7 as is their habit, the Germans invented a word for this: Verpixelungsrecht, the right to be pixelated. Mind you, not every German favored obscurity. On twitter, some Germans mocked the furor, renaming their land blurmany. Writer Jens best turned it all into a game, starting a site called Finde das Pixel (Find the Pixel), where he challenged users to search street View for addresses that had been blurred. He further suggested that they take their own pictures of the obscured buildings and link to them from Google street View.8 i, too, had ridiculed the idea of the Verpixelungsrecht. but when the adulterated street View debuted, i was less amused than appalled. i took to my blog, crying, “Germany, what have you done? You have digitally desecrated your cities.” 9 Navigating a lovely German landscape online, one is suddenly assaulted with a fog of pixels obscuring the public view. at a forum on privacy held by the Green party in berlin, where i spoke, a member of the audience asked whether future historians would blame the current generation for leaving German cities in digital ruins as bombs did the real landscape in World War ii. The topic is nothing if not emotional. Germans, i said at the conference, should indeed be mindful of their


Public Parts

history when they try to censor street View, for in limiting Google’s ability to photograph public streets, they set a dangerous precedent: if Google can be pressured not to take a picture of a public place, what is to stop some powerful miscreant caught in a bad act from making the same demand of a journalist or a citizen? ah, my German debaters have said, but there’s a difference between a public person and private person, a public act and an act committed in public with an expectation of privacy. That is a dangerous distinction if it is made case-by-case. What if i walked out on the street and littered, and you wanted to take a picture of me to illustrate ugly americans schmutzing your fair city? What if i claimed an expectation of privacy? Would you agree? What if, instead, it’s the mayor sneaking into an opium den you catch on camera? Or a police officer beating an innocent citizen? Or a parent harming a child? Would you agree now that they may have an expectation of privacy in public (which, indeed, is what may embolden them to misbehave)? limiting what’s public may grant the tyrant a curtain to hide behind. What’s public is public and should remain so. a German court has agreed. in 2010, a woman sued Google, arguing that street View might violate her privacy. The following year, in what was called a landmark decision, berlin’s state supreme court ruled that street View is legal because its pictures were taken from the street.10 On a visit to berlin, i sat in the offices of bild, the largest newspaper in Europe. it is the populist paper—a tabloid, we’d call it in the u.s., except that it is printed on oversized paper so as to make the headlines (and the bare breasts) only bigger and bolder. its charismatic and controversial editor, Kai Diekmann, is proud to have instituted a program he calls the reader-reporters, setting up a phone number, 14-14, to which the public can send pictures they take, often on mobile phones. The paper pays €500 for a photo it uses in its national edition. bild receives thousands of pictures every day. Thus Diekmann has turned Germany into a nation of paparazzi: No celebrity or funny cat is safe. a few years ago, i showed Diekmann my Flip video camera, and soon he was selling thousands of similar, bild-branded devices that were set up to send footage straight to the paper. He equipped Germans to make anything they see public.

Jeff Jarvis


Now, talking with his editors, i warned of the unintended consequences of the media and government campaign against street View. if Google can be pressured not to take pictures of public views from public streets, can’t bild’s journalists be told not to? What of bild’s reader-reporters? a hush came over the conference room. The night before, in Munich, i had joined in a public debate over publicness with Wolfgang blau, editor-in-chief of Zeit Online. in the discussion, a man in the crowd said he didn’t like seeing his picture included in crowd shots that other people in the room were posting to the net. That man said he hadn’t given permission. if he got his way, i said, everyone else in the room would be prevented from taking and sharing pictures of the event. Would his prohibition next extend to what people said and heard and wanted to share? That impinges on the free-speech rights of everyone else. The ability of people outside the room to follow what was happening there—and comment on it, challenging me, adding ideas and information—would also be restricted. The public record of the event would be limited. The publicness of this event was an asset, and if that man succeeded in preventing others from sharing what happened there he would have robbed us all. What’s public is owned by us, the public. it does not belong to one member of that public over another. it does not belong to government. it is society’s asset—it’s ours. “The streets belong to everyone, and that means Google, too,” Financial times Deutschland said in an editorial. if that man’s definition of privacy were to be applied broadly, the paper said, streets “would have to be declared private property. The public sphere would disappear.” 11 in every crowd in Germany, i find people who simply distrust Google because it is too big or makes too much money—or is american. “What makes Google, with its funny name and friendly logo, a monstrous player in the online world, is its desire for omnipotence,” berliner Zeitung has editorialized. “The search engine has become a virtual and omnipresent world player.” 12 i hear others complain, “i don’t want Google making money on me.” This apparent hostility is not consistent with online usage statistics. in the u.s., Google’s search engine has about 65 percent market share; in Germany, it has an amazing 93 percent.13 it


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would seem that in their attacks on Google, government and media and the loudest complainers are out of sync with German users. Nonetheless, i see a steady barrage of attacks against not only street View but also Google’s Gmail and buzz, not to mention Facebook (which was taken to court over the privacy implications of putting its “like” button on sites14). German officials and German media may be the most relentless in the world on issues of privacy.

The German Paradox
On a trip to Munich in 2009, i visited the sauna in my hotel. Germans love their saunas. i, too, got hooked. to research this book—i swear, it was for the sake of work—i later visited neighborhood spas in berlin and Therme Erding, a large water park in Munich’s suburbs billed as the world’s largest sauna wonderland, with more than a dozen choices of saunas and steam rooms and a giant, warm wading pool with water jets here and there and a bar attached. Germans by the hundreds sweat and shower and lounge around. it’s not in the least bit sexual. spas are a matter of robust health, in the Germans’ view. They enshrine this belief under the initials FKK—Freikörperkultur, or free body culture. That means nude. and coed. at all these facilities, the schwitzing, swimming, soaking Germans, male and female, hang together in their altogether. Which made me realize that the Germans care deeply about the privacy of everything . . . except their private parts. That’s more than a punch line. behind that observation lies a lesson and a question for us all: Why is the private private? and why is the public public? as we debate privacy and publicness, we would do well to re-examine our cultural conventions to see what they say about us and our assumptions regarding privacy. We should examine these norms as a society and as individuals, as i will do for myself. in the u.s., nothing is more private than our private parts. You’ll get arrested for exposing them in public. in Germany, they say, “What’s the big deal? We all have them.” i say that’s a far more mature attitude than americans’ puritanical prudery. in the u.s., personal finances are probably the second most

Jeff Jarvis


guarded secret people have after their health information. in Norway and Finland, citizens’ taxes and income are published openly. in secretive switzerland, two politicians enraged their opponents when they dared reveal their own income and taxes.15 in the u.s., we reveal the identities of people arrested for crimes, putting their photos online and subjecting them to “perp walks” in front of press cameras, but in Germany, published pictures of accused criminals have the eyes covered with those pixel boards Google Man used. in parts of the Middle East and Germany, block walls surround homes to ensure security and privacy. in the Netherlands, convention has it that one should leave one’s curtains open, no matter what happens behind them. but a Norwegian told me that in nearby belgium, a neighbor called the police on a foreigner walking around her own home in underwear with the drapes parted. (i should note that when i used Google street View to look for an illustration of the Dutch open-curtains policy, i could not find a single window that wasn’t draped. Perhaps the neighbors had been warned that Google Man was coming that day.) When i gave a talk on privacy and publicness at the re:publica 2010 blogging conference in berlin, the response amazed me.16 coverage landed on the front pages of three major newspapers, in the country’s two newsmagazines, and on tV. Other newspapers felt compelled to rebut me and start debates about my views. i’d hit a hot button, for sure. i believe the nerve i touched is a nagging fear Germans harbor that their heritage is coming into fundamental conflict with internet culture—with the future. When i spoke about this idea with a group of editors from Die Zeit, a leading journal of reporting and opinion, one of them conceded that i was describing the German culture of privacy correctly. Then he said that his own children did not operate under his rules—Germans’ rules—but instead under the internet’s. His children were more public. We need to ask, then, whether internet culture will come to supersede local culture. Perhaps what we think of as youth culture—sharing so much on Facebook—is a preview of the society developing around all of us. Will Facebook’s norms and Google’s mores start to take on the force of a global culture?


Public Parts

The movement toward publicness has a long way to go in Germany. blogging—and the open sharing of lives and opinions it facilitates—has not taken off there the way it has in many other countries. i asked the two thousand bloggers at re:publica whether i was standing before all the nation’s bloggers. “Half !” one of them shouted to knowing laughter. in america, there are millions. some of my friends say that Germans don’t like to share their lives and opinions; they don’t even tell one another for whom they cast their votes. Then again, on endless prime-time tV shows, i see Germans sitting on camera sharing opinions aplenty. When i wrote about this German paradox on my blog, a commenter, tilmann Hanitzsch, offered an intriguing explanation for why his countrymen are less likely to open up: “We lack a culture of sharing our knowledge,” he writes. “We have an antisocial attitude to consider each and every bit of our knowledge as a competitive advantage best kept to ourselves. and we mistrust the fools giving it away for free. . . . The push-button conditioning i grew up with: Have a problem? Don’t expose it—somebody will use it against you! Had a success? Keep quiet—it will cause envy! . . . Made a mistake? How embarrassing. talk about it? Good lord, no! consequently, we’re not only entitled to our own mistakes, we’re conditioned to make the same mistakes” others have made.17 i played that notion back in berlin, and many Germans i spoke with supported Hanitzsch’s thesis. They told me that Germans have a problem with making mistakes in the open. The Germans i spoke with—internet people—envy american entrepreneurs, who often brag about their failures, viewing them as a public badge of lessons learned. The closed, industrial economy that made Germany such a modern success is being supplanted by the open, digital economy. in that change, my German friends worry, their fear of failure may leave them at a strategic disadvantage. The notion of the beta is so antithetical to the soul of government regulators in Germany and Europe that privacy czars of seven European nations plus canada, israel, and New Zealand sent a letter to Google in april 2010 that not only complained about street View and privacy missteps with Google’s Gmail and its twitter-equivalent, buzz. The officials also advised Google against putting out products as betas before they

Jeff Jarvis


could be perfected.18 These bureaucrats, conditioned to avoiding public failure, apparently could not imagine Google’s motives in willingly making mistakes in public. There the culture clash over publicness comes to life. Publicness is about more than sharing your breakfast on twitter, your opinions in a blog, or your private parts in the sauna. it also is a window on a society’s attitudes toward change and risk, progress and innovation, success and failure.

My Public Parts
i took a liking to the sauna. after my talk in berlin, i invited the audience to come to the spa next door so we could continue the discussion in the heat, in public, and naked. Four guys took me up on the offer. We sat, sweating, overlooking the spree river as we talked about our cultural contrasts. One of them blogged about it and reported our discussion.19 a few months earlier, in the small swiss town of Davos, where the World Economic Forum meets each year, i managed to find the one open sauna, set in a log blockhouse outside a hotel. i was getting ready to join a bunch of sweaty russians, having just taken a shower, when the outside door opened. a woman shrieked, and the door slammed. i heard the man with her—her husband, i assumed—reassure her that this is the way it’s supposed to be: men and women, naked and mixed, quite normal. i went into the sauna. The couple soon joined us. she sat, stiff as a church lady, staring straight ahead, looking no one in the eye, sealed tight in her bath towel. after fifteen minutes, i left, refreshed. later, i blogged about the moment, smugly amused that this woman—whom i assumed was an uptight american—had to learn about European saunas the way i did. Then, on Facebook, she found me. Jasmine boussem introduced herself as the woman in the sauna. turns out she isn’t american, she’s French. The man wasn’t her husband but a sauna-loving colleague. The next year at Davos—at a dinner, not in the sauna—boussem explained why she’d yelped at the door. she knew who i was, having read my blog for some time before she saw me, all of me. she just didn’t know what to say. as another German friend explained to me later, saunas are oddly

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