'We Are Afraid of Google': A German Media Mogul Tells It Like It Is

It's getting harder and harder to trust the company's famous motto.

Meghan Neal

Meghan Neal

Google's famous motto gets more suspect all the time. Image: tangi berten/Flickr

It's not like Google's impending world domination isn't already well-known or well-documented, as a cursory Google search clearly shows. But few prominent public figures have stood up and really ripped into the tech giant for holding a terrifying amount of power—not to its face, anyway. And not as candidly as Germany's largest publisher Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German media empire Axel Springer, did earlier this week.

In an open letter to Eric Schmidt, Döpfner berated the company's global monopoly and, as a good newsman should, concisely articulated a sentiment most likely shared around the world.

"We are afraid of Google," he wrote.

“I must say this so clearly and honestly since scarcely one of my colleagues dares to do this publicly," Döpfner went on. "And as the biggest of the small fry, we must perhaps be the first to speak plainly in this debate.”

That he did. The letter reads as fair, professional, and articulate, and it's peppered with some killer zingers:

"Google knows more about every digital active citizen than George Orwell dared1984 ever imagine in his wildest visions,” Döpfner wrote. He called aspects of Google’s business model something “that in less honorable circles would be called extortion,” and accused the company of building a "superstate" that will turn Europe into an "innovation desert."

Now, let's note that Döpfner is hardly coming from an unbiased perspective. His media company (which itself has been accused of being a monopoly) is tangled up in a European antitrust lawsuit against Google. At the same time, his company depends on the traffic and ad dollars Google sends his way to stay in business. Most media companies do, which is the point.

In case any of you needed a reminder, the letter explained that the web giant completely dominates much of the global information ecosystem: the largest search engine in the world, largest video platform, largest web browser, most-used email service, largest mobile operating system.

"One has to wonder whether competition can work in the digital age when data are so concentrated in the hands of one party," he wrote.

And that's to say nothing of the company's newer, fledgling projects that give us plenty of fodder for speculation about Google’s future plans for world domination: its nascent robot army, its fleet of drones, its driverless cars, its race to the moon, its plan for internet expansion with Fiber and Loon, its Internet of Things infiltrating your home and your body, the artificial intelligence development, Glass, and I could go on and on.

"With the exception of biological viruses, there is nothing with such speed, efficiency and aggressiveness that spreads like [Google's] technology platforms, and this also lends its creators, owners and users with new power," wrote Döpfner.

He turned his focus for a bit on the issue of Silicon Valley arrogance more generally. On technolibertarian ideas like seasteading and succession, he wrote, "It does not take a conspiracy theorist to find them disturbing, especially if you listen to the words of Google's founder and major shareholder Larry Page. He dreams of a place with no privacy laws and without democratic accountability."

He even got in a dig at Mark Zuckerberg, reacting to Zuck’s famous if you have nothing to hide, there's nothing to fear comment on privacy. "This is a mindset that was fostered in totalitarian regimes, not in liberal societies," Döpfner's wrote. "Such a sentence could also be said by the head of the Stasi or other intelligence service or a dictatorship."

I can't speak for Döpfners intentions here: Maybe he's got an NSA-sized chip on his shoulder; maybe Google's dicking him out of a lot of money; maybe he's sick of Europe getting the short end of the innovation stick. Döpfner made the tired David and Goliath analogy, though that's not exactly fair: Axel Springer owns 200 newspapers and has a major TV and radio presence in the country. But the letter is a nice little nugget of speaking truth to power, as they used to say in the biz.  

You read the whole thing on the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Courtesy of Google Translate.