The big room on the ground floor of Humboldt University's law school was still largely bare on Thursday. The bookshelves were empty and some furniture had yet to arrive even a few weeks after the Institute for the Study of Internet and Society moved in.
“We're trying to think like a start-up, it's a work in progress” said Ahmet Acar, the institute's general manager in charge of coordinating 10 researchers and staff members. It was set up in just nine months, unusually quickly for a university, he told The Local.
The idea is for professors here to research a wide range of internet-related matters, from how new business models can be created online to whether more government regulation is necessary to protect users' privacy.
But its one very wealthy and controversial patron – Google – has been getting the bulk of media attention, much to the annoyance of Acar and his colleagues.
The company's €4.5 million investment in the project is enough to sustain the institute for three to four years. But the investment has prompted questions from bloggers and the German media about the institute's academic independence.
Acar insisted there was a strict firewall between Google and academic researchers.
“I understand that Google is the first thing people are asking about right now,” Acar told The Local. “But I hope when all the brouhaha over the funding dies down, they'll start asking about the research.”
A divisive role
Google has played an overarching – and divisive – role in Germany's tech scene over the past few years.
The 2010 launch of its Street View service in Germany, putting panoramic photos of public areas on the internet, immediately provoked the ire of politicians and the media, who called it an invasion of privacy. Anger became fury after it emerged the company had been inadvertently capturing personal data through unsecured wireless networks.
Since then, Google has been scrambling to avoid sanctions from German data regulators. It promised to blur out faces and license plates from Street View and even houses on request, and apologized for the WiFi mishap.
The clash between Google's aims and German privacy sensibilities made the February announcement by then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt of the partnership with Humboldt surprising for some. The underlying suggestion of a few media reports: Google planned to use the institute as a sort of lobbying hub.
Stockholm-based technology expert Stefan Geens, who runs a blog looking at the global politics of digital networks, told The Local it was not so simple.
“Sure, there's an element of self interest in Google funding something like this,” he said. “But it's not a naked attempt to influence public opinion. If researchers at the institute think things through rationally, I suspect their conclusions will support voluntary norms by industry and civil society as an alternative to government-mandated internet regulation.”
That, of course, would benefit Google in the long run. While there tends to be less governmental regulation of the internet in places like the United States and Canada, the opposite has been the case in continental Europe, where there has been only piecemeal research into the topic. And discussions on it here are often largely dominated by politicians, not tech or legal experts.
“They're not always the most internet savvy,” Geens said. “Hopefully this will lead to a more intelligent approach toward regulation on the internet.”
Google itself has promised not to interfere in the institute's operations.
“We are interested in the academic results of the new institute, nothing else,” company spokesman Ralf Bremer told The Local in a written statement, saying the company would only play a role in helping secure funding.
A double-edged sword
At the institute researchers remain tied up in the basics of setting up their offices, with a detailed research plan to be drawn up in February.
The funding from Google is a double-edged sword: The name carries baggage but it has also resulted in a sort of legitimacy among those interested in the tech world.
“We're going to be a real hub of a lot of research,” Acar told The Local.