Newspaper article International New York Times

Why Germans Are Afraid of Google

Newspaper article International New York Times

Why Germans Are Afraid of Google

Article excerpt

We're not Luddites. We just don't like cowboy capitalism.

These days Germany is known for being many things: a leader in clean technology, a manufacturing powerhouse, Europe's foreign policy center. But increasingly, it seems to have taken on yet another stereotype -- as a nation of Luddites.

And truth be told, Germany is not a great place to be a big tech company these days. Gunther H. Oettinger, a German official and the European Union's incoming commissioner for digital economy and society, has assailed Google for having too big a presence in Europe, and speaks of "cuts" in the company's market power. In Berlin, Sigmar Gabriel, the vice chancellor and economics minister, is investigating whether Germany can classify Google as a vital part of the country's infrastructure, and thus make it subject to heavy state regulation.

Google is often spoken of in dark terms around cafes and biergartens. People regularly call it the Octopus. Even a figure as dominant in the global economy as Mathias Dopfner, the chief executive of Springer, Germany's largest publishing house, said he was "afraid of Google."

Google isn't the only target of Teutonic ire. A few weeks ago, a German court prohibited Uber from operating in the country, reasoning that the company was violating federal licensing laws for professional drivers. And Amazon is entangled in a long and wearying battle over working conditions and pay with Verdi, one of Germany's most powerful unions.

To outsiders, this all seems like just another instance of collective German angst. In this view, Germany is the neurotic bystander of the digital revolution, shaken to the bone by its fear of everything new and its distrust of everything American, a secretive society still traumatized by its Stasi history, overestimating the importance of data privacy.

But this caricature misses the point. Germans don't fear technology. Nor do we dislike America. On the contrary: Whenever Apple debuts a new product, our media go bananas and people line up in front of Apple's flagship stores. Most Germans use Google and Facebook on a daily basis, without ever getting sweaty hands when typing in a search term or answering a friendship request.

In politics, Silicon Valley is a magic phrase. It's what Berlin wants to be. It's where our representatives and business leaders go when they want to look really cool or snoop around for ideas. Speaking at a rollout for a new book on Silicon Valley, Mr. Gabriel's eyes turned dreamy when he told the audience how he strolled the streets of Palo Alto on his first visit there in the late '90s, looking around for the Hewlett-Packard garage, feeling the magic of innovation in the air.

What gives? How can Germany be both afraid of and in love with technology, and the companies that make it? …

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