CeBIT 2012: Merkel Warns Google’s Schmidt Over Privacy

Peter Judge

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s techno-utopian ideals were brought down to earth by the German Chancellor at the CeBIT fair says Peter Judge

One recurring feature of CeBIT, as the world’s largest tech trade show, is the interaction between technology and real world politics. This year, as always, there was little obvious interaction, even though the arguments between the two were obvious.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to issue a stern warning to fellow CeBIT-keynoter Eric Schmidt of Google, who completely ducked the chance to explain Google’s privacy policy to a European audience, instead opting for a speech which argued that old-fashioned countries are in fact obsolete, in the face of the global phenomenon of Google.

Both spoke on the subject of “Managing Trust” but, after the Google chairman’s bland, upbeat presentation, Merkel gave a more critical view of privacy, saying: “You have to be sure that the data does not disappear and is used by others.”

Schmidt: the Internet supersedes nations?

Google’s new privacy policy, rolled out last week, unifies user data between different Google products and does not give the user any alternative. It has caused concern with US regulators, and European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has said it violates European law.

Despite this, Schmidt trotted out a very self-satisfied Google line, promising to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,”  before launching into a techno-utopian speech, which suggested at times that it would be a good thing if the Internet actually replaced nations.

Schmidt predicted that the Internet would break down national boundaries, as people’s loyalties now lie with their colleagues and friends online, calling the Internet a “network of minds that’s evolving into a global conscience,” and saying this is a “wonderful, wonderful thing to think about.”

Information that is shared would make it impossible to ignore suffering or wars round the world, he said, and would make it “easier for communities to mobilise against autocratic regimes.”

From his lofty, pan-global perspective, Schmidt distributed criticism of old-fashioned national government, in particular slating the Chinese government for trying to suppress news of a high-speed train crash last year. Similarly, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality cannot be hidden in the world he wants.

The trouble with Schmidt’s speech is it was addressed to actual heads of real countries, and they didn’t necessarily see it that way. In fact, as we said above, there are people in Europe who want to see Google subjected to the kind of scrutiny that ultimately gets applied to nations.

Mrs Merkel also had a company line to present. For her, the big trust issue was in Europe’s finances, and she spent a lot of her keynote working to rebuild that. When she got onto the Internet, she pointed out that Internet services need to deserve the trust we place on them, especially if they become so transparent, it is not always obvious what we are trusting in.

“The more automatic and self-evident using the Internet becomes,” she  said, “the more trust one has to be able to place in the products from the ICT industry that one uses.” Her line about how data is used was brief, but was certainly addressed to Google and other online service providers.

Are you sure this tablet is waterproof?

It wasn’t the slanging match that viewers might have hoped for – and which some tried to report. In fact, both leaders have so much on their minds that any interaction between their speeches may have been incidental. Instead, the event just pointed up the difference between their two worlds.

Afterwards, the two went their separate ways. Schmidt left his Californian telepresence suite and got on with his machinations, and Mrs Merkel did the traditional show tour of the mega-event in Germany.

She was probably relieved to have the usual sort of photo opportunity, in this case dropping a tablet into a fish-tank. She was assisted by the other head of state in attendance, Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, with Fujitsu Germany’s CEO Rolf Schwirz looking on (Fujitsu, along with other Japanese manufacturers, makes waterproof gadgets (and phones in particular), owing to the penchant of the Japanese for phoning in the shower).

The interaction between real politics, and what passes for politics in the emerging world of cyberspace, had been fleeting.

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Lutz Poessneck of contributed to this report.