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Berlin's Relationship to the Internet: A Model For the Rest of Us?

Why Berlin's relationship with the Internet could be looked at as a model for the rest of us.

Given the current obsession with sharing and over-sharing personal information on the Internet, perhaps we can learn from the “Berlin model” of how we relate to new technology as a sign of the future.

In 2005, then-Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit announced a 10-year plan to rejuvenate the city. The feel-good factor of 1989—when the wall came down—was long gone, as was the grimy rockstar glamor of when Iggy Pop and David Bowie inhabited the city in the 1970s. But it was this sort of image that Wowereit embraced. Berlin was “poor but sexy,” he was famously quoted as saying. Almost 10 years later, this plan for regrowth has seen considerable success and Berlin is now considered the creative capital of Europe, with its Silicon Allee making it one of the most exciting technology hubs in Europe.

A unifying element in this rebirth has been the power of the Internet to break down old barriers—from publishing, to advertising, to sharing. It is easier now than ever for people to both create and consume content. However, while the technology-led creative explosion in the USA over this same time-period led to Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and many other social sites, the focus in Berlin has been different. In Germany in general, the issue of privacy is a powerful driver of society.

Historically, of course, privacy has been routinely intruded on and abused by various governments in the region. In Berlin in particular, the shadow of such regimes is long and deep, with first the Stasi and then the KGB having spent decades controlling the population through a combination of intimidation and brutal repression. As such, the right to privacy is a central part of modern German society—as seen with the difficulty of making purchases online, the minimalist nature of most websites (just try to find a restaurant menu online!), and the relatively slow uptake of newer online trends like social media or smartphones (although this is beginning to change). Open Wifi is scarce, partly due to the high number of fines for illegal downloads. You'll even notice it on Facebook; American or British friends have hundreds of photos of themselves whereas Germans tend to be more restrained, perhaps with good reason.

The issue of privacy and how it intersects with the modern Internet is a topic that has had a huge amount of attention this year, especially following the Edward Snowden revelations. There has been a lot of talk of how this is the beginning of the end for the Internet as we know it—and how the pressures of the open vs. closed debate will eventually lead to a fragmentation of the online environment. There have long been warning signs of the dangers of oversharing by everyday users. A good example is the consistent warnings that potential employers will scrutinize our private lives if we aren't careful (make sure you are in control of your so-called online brand!). The massive scale of access that large companies and, now, governments have to our personal data is an alarming new development. Naturally, people are likely to be more wary of the many doubtless benefits that modern technology brings them.

This is why Berlin is such an interesting case study. Creativity in the technology sector can be fostered without encouraging the complete buy-in of customers handing over lots of personal data (despite the number of sites asking you to give them access to your Facebook or Twitter accounts to comment/pay/share). Start stripping back on the personal, stop signposting individuals, and put the content first—the likes of Reddit, Snapchat, and Whisper indicate that communities focused on content, not personality, are the next wave of social web players. There is another way.

Berlin is not without its problems when it comes to the Internet (just ask the Pirate Party, a protest opposition party dedicated to advancing the digital rights of citizens), and most residents will complain about relatively low connectivity speeds given half a chance. While these speeds are a bit aggravating, they pale in comparison to the concerns of countries without such a focused defense of privacy rights. These may not be perfect in Germany, but it seems safe to say they're significantly more robust than in the USA or the UK.

The future of the Internet does not have to be about the trade-offs between a highly creative, successful technology sector and governments seeking to exploit the data that sector generates. The real choice will come from the crowds, the vast majority of people who use the Internet to chat and share. Everyday users don't have to simply accept invasions of privacy—they can choose to value their right to privacy more highly. Like The Pirate Party or the Occupy movements, this can be achieved politically, using traditional interactions like protest, voting, and campaigns. Or you could embrace the new, anonymised vision of the web (stop posting selfies and start creating new things!). There are numerous apps and websites getting attention based on ideas like this, but there’s definitely room for more (so get coding!).

This debate, and others like it, are likely to be the defining issues of the next ten years, especially for the kind of young people Berlin and other cities are trying to attract. Sitting in Berlin, it is nice to see an alternative.

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