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A speech reveals Google’s poetic deception over EU privacy law

google logoBy Simon Davies

Last month, Google gave one of its most impressive public performances of the year – one that was filled with strategic artistry that would do justice to Mark Antony.

It’s likely that you overlooked this precious moment, which is a pity because – like a Bill Hicks comedy sketch – it was hilarious, politically clever and deeply unsettling, all at the same time.

The event was an address at the Bavarian state Parliament of Germany. To a casual observer, Bavaria might have a slightly quaint image. Not so. As Germany’s second-most populous state, Bavaria – and its capital Munich – are true industrial and economic powerhouses of Europe. In short, it’s a great location for any company to showcase aspiration to world domination of any industry sector.

The continuing conflict in Germany over Google’s business practices is a serious and complex matter, but here was a Parliamentary venue (along with a good number of parliamentary members) being lectured to by a PR exec on matters that should be the province of Google’s business model and legal compliance.

By way of background, Google has inspired a great deal of legislative conflict in Germany, from violating the homes of local people via Street View, to grabbing WiFi communications and – overall – performing a Scorched Earth operation on German data Protection laws. This was the company’s opportunity to put on a convincing show that it takes European privacy seriously.

Google certainly put on a show, but quite the show the Germans had anticipated.

First, the presenter wasn’t either Schmidt or Brin. It wasn’t chief legal honcho David Drummond, or even a senior privacy lawyer. No, the Parliament building was entertained by Rachel Whetstone, Google’s senior vice president of communications and public policy.

Whetstone – an extremely smart PR strategist and all-round corporate pin-up girl for privacy disarmament – sits near the top of the tactical PR edifice that has brought the company into such disrepute among privacy watchdogs. The embarrassingly failed “Right to be Forgotten Roadshow”, for example, turned even hard core free speech advocates against the company – and it has Whetstone’s fingerprints all over it. Google has already been heavily critized by European privacy regulators over its use of PR to destabilize trust in privacy laws.

The continuing conflict in Germany over Google’s business practices is a serious and complex matter, but here was a Parliamentary venue (along with a good number of parliamentary members) being lectured to by a PR exec on matters that should be the province of Google’s business model and legal compliance.

Be that as it may, Whetstone was on the podium – even though the irony was not entirely lost on the audience. If the German politicians wanted a show of clever rhetoric rather than legal substance, they certainly got what they hoped for.

Google has historically pushed the strategy of playing privacy off against innovation. That is, strong privacy inhibits responsive innovation. This view has sparked bemusement among successful German industrialists who manage to run buoyant businesses while adhering to strong data protection rights. In many respects, Munich is the last place Google should be pressing that argument, but this didn’t stop Whetstone.

Her first words talked up the innovation issue, lauding “a state with such a long history of invention – numerous Mittelstand champions as well as Siemens, Audi, BMW, Adidas…”

But on this occasion, the key strategy of Google’s presentation was far more powerful. The undercurrent was a sort of “plausibly deniable contrition” for some of Google’s transgressions (plausibly deniable in part because Brin, Schmidt or Drummond were not the ones uttering it).

“Now I must admit to being a little bit nervous. US tech companies are front and center of the European political debate today: not always for the right reasons. And frankly some of the criticism is fair. As an industry we have sometimes been a little too high on our own success.”

If Whetston’s speech is anything to go by, Google’s “contrition” is merely a case of serving old wine in new bottles.


That conditional admission was enough to grab the headlines, which was the primary objective of the exercise. The rest of the talk was apologist rather than an apology – justifying in soothing and brilliantly worded language why the company had to work with the NSA, why they have a right to amalgamate personal information and so on.

And yet, amidst a talk that raised privacy and security issues at multiple levels, there was no mention of Europe’s data protection framework. Indeed the phrase “data protection” never even came up. This omission is mystifying, considering that the political conflict that Whetston mentioned is largely to do with the company’s wholesale violation of existing data protection laws and its interference with the emerging data protection framework.

Google has spent much of the past three years playing the EU Competition authorities off against the European Commission and playing a game of arbitrage amongst privacy regulators, staling reform of its business practices just long enough to see enforcement action against the company paralysed because of the emerging new data protection Regulation. If Whetston’s speech is anything to go by, Google’s “contrition” is merely a case of serving old wine in new bottles.