Our weapons in the digital battle for freedom
Mathias Döpfner’s confession attested to his fear. In the arts section of this newspaper the CEO of Axel Springer AG wrote: „We are frightened of Google. And I should say this clearly and honestly, as hardly any of my colleagues dare to.” While not making a paid statement, Döpfner was speaking on behalf of all those anonymous fearful people of whom there are many more than is customarily assumed. The search terms “Google & Angst” garners 20 million hits in the German language version, ten times more than the duo of “Putin & Angst”.
Immediate therapeutic steps are necessary to prevent the virus of fear spreading and becoming an epidemic. Which is why it bears relying on French humanist Étienne de La Boëtie, whose treatise “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude” has historically proven to foster courage among its readers. Written almost 500 years ago, in the days of darkest feudalism, the work prompted the men of the Enlightenment to take up intellectual arms. Boëtie penned nothing less than a manifesto against losing heart in the face of strong powers: “He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you.”
We gave Google our brains and our hearts
Every tyrant, so his argument reads, only rules because a fearful society obeys him – the despot as the sum total of all the faint-hearted: “Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you?” Boëtie concludes that “A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke.”
Which brings us back to Google, Döpfner and the German publishing companies. Because Google’s power, and no one would dispute it, is a power that emanates in the traditional publishing houses even if it does not return to them. Of the many million German documents that the Google archive holds ready for us on its servers, no single text was written by a Google staffer; instead, all those articles that kindle enthusiasm, spark controversy, cause boredom or simply inform were written by authors of German publishing houses in German and – careful, as now the profile of the later victims as the original killers becomes clear, they were voluntarily handed over to the Google search engines.
The content actually gets optimized for Google to make sure it fits smoothly into the array of algorithms. We have not only provided Google with our eyes and hands, but also with our brains as authors and our hearts as readers; meaning that the process of Google’s seizure of power initially involved no compulsion at all. Yes, Google has established a neofeudal monopoly of power in the digital kingdom; but no, it was not anonymous helpers who assisted in erecting it against us, but we ourselves. We are more stupid than the mice, because we ourselves placed the cheese in the trap that snares us. Any confessions of fear should therefore be read as self-incriminating evidence.
Their doorstep is our PC screen
Of course, Google does not leave the ingredients we so diligently supply unprocessed. Information particles give rise to data patterns that in turn get woven into nets with the intention of turning readers into buyers, of spinning the world of reading into the orbit of consumerism, transforming the idealist into the materialist. He who reads gets read, he who buys himself becomes a product, or so Frank Schirrmacher put it when exposing the core of Google’s business idea. The company earned almost 13 billion dollars last year, above all by making reading matter and reader data available to the advertising industry.
That said, on the part of the ad business, as the flip side of Döpfner’s fears, they’re euphoric, something again only loosely bound up with reality. A clear-thinking Internet citizen will notice what ads follow him around now and again; and is starting to get allergic. Readers will not, should not and are not about to let themselves be reduced to spineless buying and consuming machines. The thirst for freedom may have degenerated, but hasn’t disappeared completely. And in real life, stalking also does not amount to foreplay prior to a wedding.
Data-led ads in the Internet are meanwhile fatally reminiscent of the door-to-door sales pitches of the early post-War years, when cosmetics, plastic bowls, magazines and life insurances were sold at the doorstep, or rather hawked, flogged, imposed, the only difference being that the avatars of the sales managers back then now speak English to us. Their doorstep is our PC screen, where the emissaries of the world of artificially created needs incessantly come and go in the form of push-mails, overlays and pop-up windows.
We hold in our hands the weapons to topple Google from its throne
Even ignoring the ad formats bolsters the growth of those data profiles that seek to decode human desires and yearnings. Google puts up an annual research budget of some eight billion dollars, a sum that is six times the aggregated annual profits of Springer, Burda, Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck: solely to develop new products from this data universe, such as data spectacles, self-driving cars, household robots, drones.
The Google Brain project that attempts to imitate the human brain and, if possible, top it, does not, as many have suggested, attest to the megalomania of Google staff members, but reveals their realistic view of themselves. If there is a corporation at present that can move in this divine zone with the prospect of success, then it is Google.
Politics and media houses made this monstrosity possible back in the very early days of the nascent Internet, not imagining that a monstrosity might be involved. The key element in our liberation here hinges on, in a dialectical reversal of history to date, our becoming aware of our complicity. Because the crucial insight here is that the problem and the solution exist under one and the same roof, namely ours, which is why at the zenith of Google’s power we hold in our very hands the weapons to topple it from its throne. The new enlightened view of Google’s power is the most important precondition in this context.
Good money for good work
Google knows this. In the company’s share sales prospectus, in other words in the document the SEC demands in order to enable potential investors to gauge the risks, the company provides information on its own fears. It reads as follows: “We also face risks associated with international data protection. The interpretation and application of data protection laws in Europe and elsewhere are still uncertain and in flux. It is possible that these laws may be interpreted and applied in a manner that is inconsistent with our data practices. If so, in addition to the possibility of fines, this could result in an order requiring that we change our data practices, which in turn could have a material effect on our business.”
Google’s fear of the “material effect” is our hope. Essentially, the company thus itself provides instructions for how European policymakers should act, namely to terminate overly generous data protection laws and the resulting Google practice of skimming off data free of charge and even manipulating search results. The joyous message in the sales prospectus is that our losses in sovereignty can be reversed.
The resistance could best be started by us stopping our supply to Google of texts by our journalists free of charge. This mega-mistake by publishers needs to be rectified. Not that the texts should disappear from the search engine, as we want people to keep on finding us and reading us; no, it is just their free-of-charge status that needs to be ended. Things would then be as follows: The search engine again tells you where to find the article, the teaser again offers a product description, but the actual content remains what it always was: subject to a charge. Good money for good work.
We should no longer allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that in the Internet age language and information has lost its value and price. Related fields, filmmakers, book authors, musicians, teach us different day-in day-out. Steven Spielberg, Joanne K. Rowling and Mick Jagger would never imagine placing their work free of charge on the Net, because they know how self-destructive that would be. A single summer of free film culture would bring Hollywood studios record audiences followed by bankruptcy.
No more yielding to the tyrants
Google itself by no means obeys the altruism some suggest we should show. It does not shell out ‘page-views’ and ‘unique visitor’ status to its shareholders – that’s just marbles for our confused trade – and instead dollars and cents. In Mountain View, they preach water, but have a cellar full of wine.
In the case of its own products, Google never assigns anyone usufruct, and certainly not the community of Internet users. Indeed why should it? The verb “to share” does not pop up anywhere in the user conditions for the Google Chrome browser software. Instead, all clients are instructed to declare the following: “You may not copy, modify, distribute, sell or lease any part of our Services or included software, nor may you reverse engineer or attempt to extract the source code of that software, unless laws prohibit those restrictions or you have our written permission.”
We should act with the same self-confidence. All authors have a right to a similarly precise declaration: Because they prepare an article, called journalism in this case, that should not be copied, modified, distributed, sold or leased against their will and without their financial participation. Biojournalism, as Miriam Meckel calls it, is intellectual manufacturing and should, aware of its unique essence, refuse to be given away for free. Especially as this sacrifice simply serves to raise Google even further up in Olympus.
Étienne de La Boëtie comments: “The more one yields to the tyrants, and obeys them, by that much do they become mightier and more formidable, the readier to annihilate and destroy. But if not one thing is yielded to them, if, without any violence they are simply not obeyed, they become naked and undone and as nothing, just as, when the root receives no nourishment, the branch withers and dies.”
The grand Google-critical coalition
It’s not just about us journalists here. Readers have likewise not been served well by the new era. Their data sets became a gold seam in which Google unabashedly mines its data. The further the company pushes ahead with exploring client data, the clearer the sieves discover the future in the past, the more valuable the data sets become.
Germany’s Basic Law does not foresee this form of exploitation. In its sections 14 and 15 property is actually termed an inviolable basic pillar of a free constitutional order, whereby a contemporary interpretation is no doubt in order. The Basic Law brings a concept of property to bear that covers “land, real estate, natural resources and the means of production” as those assets worthy of protection and that may only be appropriated in the interest of the common good and only then if compensation is paid.
The experts who sat down at the table in Herrenchiemsee to draw up the Basic Law could not have imagined, decades before the invention of the Internet protocol, that modern treasures are concealed in the data sets of people. Google spotted this faster than others and made use of the fact. But that is no grounds for data theft.
Today, many media houses bemoan Google’s data suction pads, albeit not with an emancipatory intention but with a view to gaining ownership of the client data themselves. The exploitation of the data mines remains exploitation irrespective of whether Döpfner and others are doing the digging. Client data belongs to the client, the protection of privacy and the concept of property defined in the Basic Law insist that sovereignty be restored to the client. The strength of the Google-critical movement stems from a grand coalition of authors and readers, publishing houses and their clients.
It's about time to strike the first blow
Politics has, and this is one of the gratifying findings of this debate, ceased its slumbers. Minister of Economics Sigmar Gabriel is deploying what is possibly the fiercest weapon against Google’s “new monopoly power”, namely regulatory policy. For in the country that brought forth a Ludwig Erhard such a concentration of power such as Google has, with its market share of 90 percent among the search engines, is not envisaged, and should it arise nevertheless, then only to be corrected.
Easy-going Erhard could be really tough on such issues: “Not the free market economy of liberal freebooters of a past era, and not the free play of forces and similar phrases that people go hawking with, constitute the modern form of a market economy, but a market economy that is socially responsible, that ensures each individual once again leads a fruitful life, that ensures the value of the person is the uppermost value of all.”
Gabriel takes up this tradition of the social market economy when, in a piece contributing to the debate in this newspaper, he takes up the weapons Erhard forged, namely antimonopoly proceedings and the threat of unbundling. They are heavy weapons. They are sharp weapons. History has tempered them.
The time to strike the first blow has come. Politics is vibrating, the European Court of Justice is willing, the publishing houses have overcome the phase of confusion. Down through the centuries we hear what the then 25-year-old Étienne de La Boëtie called on us to do, first to overcome our own fears and then to vanquish the seemingly overpowering opponent: “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed.”
Translated from German by Jeremy Gaines.
Gabor Steingart is Chairman of the Board of Verlagsgruppe Handelsblatt and publisher of “Handelsblatt”.