Thoughts on Google’s initiatives in Germany

Earlier today, ZEIT Online published an article on Google’s lobbying and public affairs efforts in Germany: Google umarmt die Netz-Prominenz (translation: Google embraces the web VIPs).

I found it an interesting read on many levels.

Disclosures galore

Before I continue I think a whole bunch of disclosures are appropriate: I worked on a small paid project for Google at some time. On and off I participate in the Collaboratory, though not often enough. I’ve seen the Collaboratory come together from a vague idea to a more or less concrete thing. I know many – and am friends with quite a few – of the folks mentioned in the article, and people working for the other organizations mentioned there. Close friends of mine work for ZEIT Online, too, who have also been clients of my company. In other words, I’m not at all detached from what’s going on there. That said, I have no obligations to any one there, I’ve never had problems discussing issues with any of them or criticizing them or Google’s behavior or products. To be clear: There’s nothing restricting me here or influencing me towards Google by way of lobbying.

Germany’s Google Paradox

Now that that’s out of the way, I find it fascinating how Google is perceived in Germany. This has been the topic of discussions we’ve had on panels, in interviews, over drinks at bars: No other country has, as far as I know, a higher penetration of Google users in search than Germany. No other country seems to be so paranoid of Google abusing their power. It’s a paradox, and a big one.

In this particular article, what struck me as particularly odd is that the main criticism of the GOOG is that they’re doing lobbying right. That they’re doing in out in the open, as neutrally as possible, and with good collateral outcome for the public. No suitcases full of money covertly changing hands, but an independent research institute. No bribes or lavish parties to influence the easily impressed, but unpaid working groups over simple snacks.

Trust me on this: I’ve been to quite a few of these work meetings. It’s usually a full day of unpaid work – nothing that would usually make you wave any company’s flags or take a bullet for them.

In bed with Google?

Google isn’t doing this as charity but in their own interest. Is that really even worth an article? Of course the company has an interest. And of course, anyone working with any company is perceived as a collaborator – because simply put, they are. I am. The people in this article are.

The question for me is: Is this illegitimate, or morally questionable?

Personally, I made a decision a while ago – that I don’t have a problem working with larger companies if I trust them to stick to some basic ground rules. In the case of Google that is based on their track record that is far from perfect, but overall much less screwed up than most companies in that league in my opinion. And it is – in the case of the German initiatives – also the trust in some of the people working on them. If they left the company I might change my vote.

Someone has to represent our digital rights

What’s more important here to me, though, is the question of representation. As it stands, there aren’t many people or organizations that are both politically aligned with my personal stance to internet politics and equipped with enough resources to represent them politically.

In other words: As long as telcos and the intellectual property industry and pharma companies and all the other big players lobby for their interests that often are diagonal to mine (mutually exclusive even in some cases), then I want someone to lobby back for my interests. Right now, I can see hardly anyone besides Google doing that. Is that sad? Yes. Would I like to see that change? Certainly. Maybe if the EFF were able to step up their game big time in Europe, that would be something.

As things stand, Google does lobbying, quite transparently as far as I can tell. They also fund a good deal of the organizations that fight for digital rights, including the ones that fight back at Google, or competes with them. Without having reliable numbers to link to I won’t claim that Google is also one of the main distributors/enablers of ad money for online publishers, but I strongly suspect it.

With all that I can live, and still get sound sleep at night. If the company changes their stance at some point I might reconsider. But for now it all looks pretty much ok to me.

Update 6 Dec 2011: Speaking of representation, there are two more links I wasn’t aware of when I wrote my post that play right into this discussion. One, this new video of Mozilla’s vision for the web. And two, the discussion (in German) over at D64 about balancing private engagement and lobbying.

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