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Google-backed internet institute raises eyebrows

The Local · 11 Nov 2011, 16:03

Published: 11 Nov 2011 16:03 GMT+01:00

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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.

Story continues below…

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.

Moises Mendoza



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Your comments about this article

18:02 November 11, 2011 by mos101392
Why is it that every time American businesses try to set up shop in Germany, the Germans seem to get all nervous and put up "stumbling blocks"? Is it because they are afraid they might not have the upper hand. But ofcourse the real reason is always the money!

Why can't I buy American Steaks/meat at a German store? I think it would be just as far to transport meat from Argentina as from the USA, (sarcasm). But of course the real reason is money! Every German I know that has tried American beef has asked the same question and every, single German has said the taste is superior...They know the European beef cannot compete . Anyway, maybe we'll get our act together someday and give back the same resistance on their exports and stateside businesses as they appear to give the US companies.
19:28 November 11, 2011 by rfwilson
The answer,as I understand it, is that Americans use growth hormones, and Europe does not allow them.

Of course, many Americans complain this is a clever way to keep American meat out of the European market.

To solve the problem, all the US has to do is ship meat to Europe that complies with European requirements. Instead, they just whine about how unfair it is.
20:14 November 11, 2011 by mos101392
@rfwilson-You said it yourself!

"Of course, many Americans complain this is a clever way to keep American meat out of the European market". As if there can be other reasons. I would hope the US can conjure up similar excuses to exclude German products. Who made the Europeans the experts on what is healthy and not? I would not trust everything the Europeans have to say...MAD COW!
00:21 November 12, 2011 by expatriarch
@mos101392 - I will agree with @rfwilson. The reason you can't "buy American steaks/meat" is most likely, not only the growth hormones, but also the genetically manipulated feed and genetically manipulated cattle (and many other livestock in the USA) that is pumped full of antibiotics.

What you don't understand is that even though Germany can sometimes go a little overboard about some things, German society and government care about people's rights to things like freedom from corporate experiments with genetics and chemistry in their food supply. In regards to the Google issue, it is Germany you have to thank for finding out that Android and iOS track every single location you go to and that Google was logging people's WIFI routers and even intercepting emails and other confidential information. The thing you also don't understand is that the United States government is essentially denying people the right to choose for themselves through all kinds of deceptive practices that deceive and endanger its own citizens all for the advantage of corporations and for the wealthy to profit at the expense of people who just want to life their life.
00:52 November 12, 2011 by Redwing

The American beef I have eaten, in Texas, only tasted of anything after it had been marinated for hours in order then to be scorched on the barbecue. Have you ever eaten Aberdeen Angus beef? If you haven't, you have not lived.
03:16 November 12, 2011 by Klaipeda
As rfwilson said, the answer is growth hormones. They are forbiddden in Europe (for good reason). But besides that, Germany and the USA hava a lot of trade, and its fairly balanced with Germany also buying a lot from the USA.

It would be even better for the USA if they had not abandoned manufacturing, stating their economy would be a services economy (finance, software, etc.). Now the US has been knocked down several pegs against the rest of the world.

Apparently the Germans aren't as dumb as the characters Hollywood created for them in shows like Hogans Heroes or war movies where one American soldier would make half of Germany surrender.
09:05 November 12, 2011 by catjones
Maybe the google institute could teach germans how to use the Reply and Reply All buttons. I'd be happy with that.
17:39 November 12, 2011 by Englishted
I believe you can buy American steaks as well as South American in Germany but as to what this has to do with this thread ,I will have to Google to find the answer.


You are right about the Scottish steaks but the way you wrote it ,it sounds like a sexual act :-).
23:08 November 14, 2011 by AxelS
@Steak discussion

Yes it is because of the growth hormones. The US has generally the highest food quality, less smoker, more sport activities than any other nation, yet it is the no.1 "producer" in cancer. Growth hormones drive cancer growth and the rest of the world - not only Germany - know! buhhh

@Google discussion

Google is even more controversially discussed here in the states than in Europe. I think no University in the US would do what Humbolt did in Germany. @mos101392 no it is not about money - it is about integrity. Europe was always wide open for US technology and I'm a billion $ example of that :) But this case is about control, influence knowledge base and much more.


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