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Data Privacy and Security

Viewpoint: Germany, Google & the Stasi Legacy

Rafael Laguna is CEO of German software company, Open-Xchange, and grew up in East Germany to a Spanish father and half-Dutch mother. In fact, his older brother was born the day the Berlin Wall went up. And now, speaking over the phone from Germany, he explains why he feels the legacy of mass surveillance has had a fundamental impact on German attitudes today.

“Nazi Germany had a system of Germans spying on Germans called the Gestapo, then in East Germany, this example was replaced by the Stasi,” says Laguna. “Penetration [of the Stasi] was probably one per ten, so every tenth person was a spy,” he continues.

"[The Stasi] offered incentives, made it clear people should cooperate, recruited informal helpers to infiltrate the entire society,” Konrad Jarausch, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told Wired. "They beat people up less often, sure, but they psychologically trampled people. Which is worse depends on what you prefer."

“[This] has created this deep rooted mistrust in even your own government collecting information about you,” says Laguna. In fact, when Germany tried to run a census in 1987 there was a “mass protest and boycott movement” due to privacy concerns. Now the amount of data being collected by the likes of Google and Facebook is exponential compared to back then.

Laguna believes all this explains why the German attitude to Google data collection “is a little different from a lot of other parts of Europe”.

It is clear Germany has an adverse reaction to Google. This summer the Sunday Times ran a piece called “Germany’s secret plan to bring Google to heel”. This looked at a 30-page document from the country’s Federal Cartel Office which detailed how it would “muzzle Google if Berlin judged that the internet search giant had become too influential”.

This is just one of numerous other high profile instances where Germany has come up against the tech behemoth. In April, media mogul Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer, sent an open letter criticising Google. Whilst back in 2011 Street View mapping ran into so many hurdles over piracy that the company opted to abandon the project.

Sigmar Gabriel, German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy and Vice Chancellor, told FAZ that Google posed a threat to democracy and demanded an end to its ‘information capitalism’. “The crucial issue here is how to enforce non-discrimination of alternative providers who find innovative ways of challenging the ‘top dogs’,” he said.  

Google however, is ubiquitous and Laguna acknowledges that “living a Google free life is a bit like living without water or oxygen - so it is almost unavoidable”. He certainly doesn’t envisage any kind of German boycott. However, he does stress: “If you look at the technology mentality in Germany and also Scandinavia there is an [emphasis on] Open Source” and a lot of Open Source software has originated from these countries.

“I’m on a mission to push the openness of what Open Source did for software [into services],” explains Laguna. “We’re trying to push that into any cloud service at Open-Xchange [this will mean] that anyone can start a service based on our stuff providing services to people based on full transparency”.

In fact Open-Xchange’s tagline is “ruthlessly open”. And Laguna wants full details to be available on all software. “I hope openness will become the prerequisite for a service,” he says however, he does not think this change is a job for government: 

“The government has never been fast enough. I remember the anti-trust action against IBM and later against Microsoft, the whole proceeding took almost a decade. All the bad things that came out of the monopolistic behaviour had already happened when the government finally woke up and took action. It is up to the industry itself to heal itself and create open alternatives that are more trustable.”

It is hard to know how this will pan out in practice but across the world there are widespread misgivings about the ascendency large companies like Google and Facebook hold over the internet. Laguna likens it to the old inherited rule of kings and queens and is keen to stress that to establish any kind of new order will clearly take time.

The story of Germany is also especially pertinent because this is the country which has gone from post-war pariah of Europe, to leader of the EU. It is the country which has sat at the forefront of two significant conflicts, but has been riven down the middle and terrorised from the inside:

“Everybody had a dual personality [in East Germany],” says Laguna: “one was the public person, where you were a member of the party and there was only one party to be member of. Then the unofficial personality with friends and family in the inner circle. This was obviously very different from that [public person]. You were watching western TV and trying to get goods, like Coca-Cola from West Germany…”

After the Berlin wall came down in 1989 the government set up an agency where you could go and learn what the Stasi knew about you. “My parents found one of their friends, in the inner circle, was a Stasi employee and there was really no hiding,” says Laguna “But to most people it didn’t lead to really bad things because they [the government] would have to lock away maybe 80% of their population… because everyone was like this”.

Now, even quarter of a century later this period is still firmly branded into German consciousness. Maybe it is no surprise the tech answer is Open Source?

 

Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect

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