Germany's War with Facebook and Google Over Privacy

German authorities are trying to limit what the American tech companies can do, but the Silicon Valley giants are fighting back

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A protester holds mock CCTV camera with sign reading Google during protest calling for protection of digital data privacy in Berlin / Reuters

When it comes to conflicts with American tech companies, Germany is the anti-China. The Chinese government wanted Google to censor search results and (depending on whose version you believe) keep quiet when government hackers stole individuals' information for control purposes.

Germany, by contrast, is ambivalent about companies like Google and Facebook having all that information in the first place. Not only is the German government uninterested in exploiting the companies' tools for Big Brother purposes, it wants to keep Big Brother tools out of circulation in general.

In August, the state of Schleswig-Holstein's Independent Centre for Privacy Protection (ULD in German: Unabhängiges Landeszentrum für Datenschutz) banned state organizations from having Facebook pages or offering "like" buttons on their own pages, having decided that the features were in violation of a series of data protection acts. "Whoever visits or uses a plug-in must expect that he or she will be tracked by the company for two years," read the statement. "Facebook builds a broad individual and for members even a personalised profile. Such a profiling infringes German and European data protection law," the ULD explained.  "Nobody should claim that there are no alternatives," they declared further down the page.

August also saw the privacy commissioner of Hamburg order the data Facebook had been collecting for facial recognition deleted. As the BBC noted at the time, the privacy commissioner had also issued a legal complaint against Facebook for storing the personal data of people who didn't even have Facebook accounts.

Then there was German opposition to Google Street View, which was resolved by Google abandoning the German branch of the project entirely last April, though it kept images that had already been collected.

Tech companies, of course, don't back off without a fight. Late in October, both Facebook and Google defended themselves in the German parliament, pledging commitment to data protection and transparency. One of the representatives present was Richard Allan, Facebook's director of policy in Europe (translation: lobbyist). In fact, according to German paper Die Zeit, since the beginning of the year Facebook has had another lobbyist based out of Berlin specifically -- Eva Maria Kirschsieper. And at the end of October, a former German SPD member of the European parliament began working for Facebook in Brussels (recall that some of the laws Germany has alleged Facebook to be breaking are European ones).

Of course, just as the German media has painstakingly documented every data protection and privacy spat, they're also not missing a trick when it comes to the lobbyists. German paper Der Tagesspiegel ran its article Sunday on Facebook's lobbyist expansion (apparently the company is still looking for more representatives), and it was reprinted on Die Zeit's webpage Monday.  Der Tageespiegel was also covering the lobbyist trend back in September. What could be better calculated to placate a suspicious citizenry than press about lobbyists, villains the world round? Unsurprisingly, this week's article quotes the Facebook press representative for Germany as denying that there's any kind of "lobbying offensive" underway.

It's worth noting that Facebook and Google are actually quite popular in the country -- the BBC reported in September that "a quarter of the German population are active Facebook users and Google has 95% of the country's search market." New estimates out this week suggest half of all German Internet users are on Facebook.

Yet still the country is offering remarkable resistance when it comes to data protection issues. The sense of condemnation coming from state privacy agencies is strong -- there's more of a black and white feel to the debate than we're accustomed to seeing in the U.S. (even when U.S. agencies step in, as in the case of the FTC, with whom Facebook reached a settlement earlier this week). And it's not just an American-European divide. France, for example, has made fewer headlines on these issues. Fascinatingly, the French government was involved in a legal spat with Google and Facebook, among others, over the government's plan to force websites to store customers' personal data and hand it over to the authorities if requested. That's frankly more reminiscent of the Chinese approach.

So why is Germany, in particular, putting all these other countries to shame when it comes to data protection (even if it might appear to be fussing a bit more than necessary on some topics -- Google Street View, for example)? Back in September, the BBC got a few of the German privacy analysts and officials to confirm: history is a big part of it. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that East Germans found themselves under constant surveillance by the Stasi -- the Ministry for State Security set up under Soviet influence that had citizens spying on citizens, files kept on ordinary people and reviewed for warning signs.

Facebook and Google, of course, store and sell users' data for commercial, rather than political, purposes. Individual Germans occasionally feel their state and federal governments are overreacting. But consider the Google-China case, where Google alleged that the data stolen pertained to journalists, U.S. officials, and Chinese activists. Just because web companies are currently collecting data for apolitical purposes doesn't mean the data can't be used -- whether stolen or not -- in a way other than was originally intended. Perhaps, even as a growing lobbyist staff attempts to chip away at German resistance, other countries could start following Germany's example.