A remarkably honest sentence
This also applies to the large and even more problematic set of issues concerning data security and data utilization. Ever since Snowden triggered the NSA affair, ever since the close relations between major American online companies and the American secret services became public, the social climate – at least in Europe – has fundamentally changed. People have become more sensitive about what happens to their user data. Nobody knows as much about its customers as Google. Even private or business emails are read by Gmail and, if necessary, can be evaluated. You yourself said in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” This is a remarkably honest sentence. The question is: Are users happy with the fact that this information is used not only for commercial purposes – which may have many advantages, yet a number of spooky negative aspects as well – but could end up in the hands of the intelligence services and to a certain extent already has?
In Patrick Tucker’s book The Naked Future: What Happens in a World that Anticipates Your Every Move?, whose vision of the future was considered to be “inescapable” by Google’s master thinker Vint Cerf, there is a scene which sounds like science fiction, but isn’t. Just imagine, the author writes, you wake up one morning and read the following on your phone: “Good morning! Today, as you leave work, you will run into your old girlfriend Vanessa (you dated her eleven years ago), and she is going to tell you that she is getting married. Do try to act surprised!” Because Vanessa has not told anyone yet. You of course are wondering just how your phone knew that or whether it’s a joke, and so you ignore the message. Then in the evening you actually pass Vanessa on the sidewalk.
Can competition generally still function in the digital age?
Vaguely remembering the text from the phone, you congratulate her on her engagement. Vanessa is alarmed: “‘How did you know I was engaged?’ she asks. You’re about to say, ‘My phone sent me the text,’ but you stop yourself just in time. ‘Didn’t you post something to your Facebook profile?’ you ask. ‘Not yet,’ she answers and walks hurriedly away. You should have paid attention to your phone and just acted surprised.”
Google searches more than half a billion web addresses. Google knows more about every digitally active citizen than George Orwell dared to imagine in his wildest dreams in 1984. Google is sitting on the entire current data trove of humanity like the giant Fafner in The Ring of the Nibelung: “Here I lie and here I hold.” I hope you are aware of your company’s special responsibility. If fossil fuels were the fuels of the 20th century, then those of the 21st century are surely data and user profiles. We need to ask ourselves whether competition can generally still function in the digital age if data are so extensively concentrated in the hands of one party.