Monday, June 21, 2010

Berlin, and its ghosts

I'm back from another few days in Berlin. As usual, I met some political leaders to talk about privacy. I also took a personal side trip to visit the villa where the Wannsee Conference took place in 1942 (the infamous "final solution" conference). The German privacy debate, which I think is the most intense in the world, simply makes no sense to my ears without the backdrop of Germany's two totalitarian traumas in living memory. Privacy is always a cultural concept, and it varies from country to country, based on history and self-perception. Hardly any country, thank heaven, has Germany's history.

Even so, it was a bit of a surprise when I heard a political leader tell me clearly: "in Germany, we want innovation, but we want you to ask for permission first". Innovation and permission. In fact, I wonder if they're oxymoron. I think of innovation as serendipitous, almost the opposite of bureaucratic/political process. But in a nutshell, there it was. I sensed the frustration of politicians and regulators who want (or feel the responsibility) to regulate the profoundly disruptive phenomenon of Internet innovation, but feel dis-empowered to do so. It's hard indeed to control a phenomenon like innovation on the Internet, especially if it happens outside your borders. You can't grab the Internet by the ears and shake it, but you can grab one guy, or one company, and shake them as hard.

Innovation requires you to take risks, to try new things, to accept failure, to iterate and to move on. They all depend on a culture that accepts novelty and failures as a necessary learning step on the way to success. "Launch and iterate" has become the innovation model for the Internet. Some people and countries are more comfortable with that than others, perhaps for very valid historical and cultural reasons. As one Berliner told me: "of course Americans think differently about would we if we had had two centuries of stable democracy."

At the Wannsee Conference villa, the Nazi officials spent a lot of time discussing how to deal with "mixed race people", categorizing each permutation of people like me with one Jewish grand-parent into a box. I saw the memo that clarified how I would have been classified as a "second-degree mongrel", with a full catalog of the legal "rights" to which I was entitled. I think of my dad, "a first-degree mongrel", who amazingly lived in Berlin throughout those years. I have lots of pictures of him as a little boy, in the early 1930's, heading off for his first day in school, petting a tiger cub in the Berlin zoo, with his dog. But then nothing, not a single picture, no record at all, for the next decade.

There's a lot of debate about the potential evils that the Internet might enable in the future, as vast amounts of data are retained and publicly available. Those issues are serious, indeed, and I can't get my head around them. Many of the people who argue most passionately about the need for a "right to be forgotten" on the Internet are thinking about these potential evils. But at the same time, so much information also has a disinfectant quality for people who believe in free speech and transparency. There are no records that I can find of that missing decade of my dad's life. In many ways, I'm more a supporter of a "right not to be forgotten" than the opposite.

I doubt the horrors of Wannsee would have been possible in the age of the Internet. Imagine Anne Frank writing a daily blog. Or the Wannsee Conference proceedings leaked onto YouTube. Or maybe I have it all wrong, and the future will cook up evils using the same technologies that seem so benign to me now. I walk around Berlin shaking my head in incredulity, no matter how often I've been. I can understand the intense urge there to forget. Surely, that influences the concept of "privacy" too.


Anonymous said...

"I doubt the horrors of Wannsee would have been possible in the age of the Internet. Imagine Anne Frank writing a daily blog. Or the Wannsee Conference proceedings leaked onto YouTube."


Personally I am less convinced by statements apparently made on the spur of the moment than by observations about a majority of people in most of the countrys affected by those phenomena actually supported it at the time; That majority support requires seriously considering when thinking about the internet; Although there would be uproar if somebody were able to deliver an Anne Frank type daily blog.

I did notice when quickly looking for links to the above that the UN deliver an electronic degree in Human Rights for those who may be interested in that aspect.


Francis Burns said...

It's an interesting point... I think in the past people could, to some extent, hide behind a shield of ignorance to events going on, not just war time Germany but all countries with any controversial acts of aggression/suppression (so all of them really). The internet makes it virtually impossible to suppress anything, Iran in recent times is a good example; state controlled internet but not by any means 100% successful in the suppression of information coming out.

With regards to privacy: I'm quite sure that's an incredibly hard area of your job - what is for the common good and should be public domain and what should remain optionally private. Also the ever changing state of data and where its kept etc.. European data protection laws will have to adapt constantly to keep up with the internet.

Hopefully being optimistically idealistic (and not naive) in that I feel that information coming out into the public domain can be managed by a collective moral code (I think tabloid newspapers are proving me wrong here...)

I do feel that the internet is a power for good overall, though of course it has many different capacities. As for the grey areas, I guess that is for the lawyers :-p

Sorry for randomly posting on your blog, I was just reading around and your blog piqued my interest!

Anonymous said...

Anna Frank could not write blogs if she would live in PR China, Saudi Arabia etc.