The Blog

  • February 29, 2012
  • Google’s Woes and the Right to Be Pixilated

    On April 23, 1516 in the duchy of Bavaria (thank you Wikipedia), the Germans put a law on the books governing the purity of beer.  The Reinheitsgebot stipulated that beer could be made of only three ingredients: water, malted barley and hops.  That may have been the highpoint of European tinkering with technology through government fiat.

    The low point for government technology tinkering might be another German law enacted in the last few years Verpixelungsrecht or the right to be pixilated.  I got this nugget from Public Parts a book that takes on our various ideas about privacy in the modern world by Jeff Jarvis published last year by Simon and Schuster.

    The right to be pixilated stems from Google’s efforts to map streets all over the world using cameras so that you can Google-up a street and see it.  How cool?  But the Germans have this thing about privacy and didn’t want anyone’s face captured for all posterity.  So they came up with the right to be pixilated.  What’s interesting, and what Jarvis makes very entertaining, is the contrast: the Germans’ favorite indoor sport, the sauna.  Naked.  Co-ed.  Sauna.  Go figure.  At least no one gets pixilated.

    All this is brought into sharp focus by the latest effort at hemming in Google and other Web properties for their privacy practices.  In an article in today’s New York Times, it appears that Google’s upcoming changes to privacy rules are not up to snuff for the French, of all people!  The French are not known for their saunas but…oh never mind.

    According to the Times:

    “… the French privacy agency, the National Commission for Computing and Civil Liberties, said in a letter to Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and chief executive, that the proposed policy was murky in the details of how the company would use private data.”

    Privacy agency?

    If I understand this right, Google takes a zillion pieces of data, strips out the identifying characteristics (let’s say they pixilate it, ok?) and then use analytics to look for patterns so that when you browse a page they can suggest ads.

    Isn’t this just a big focus group masquerading as a science project masquerading as real work for politicians who can’t get their economy moving because they’re wedded to draconian economic ideas that were last tried by Diocletian?

    Look, my name is Denis.  For the first forty-odd years of my life, before people met me they assumed I was a girl because Dennis is the ‘correct’ spelling of my name.  Every year the first day of school had a predictable little drama when the teacher read the roll.  Let’s not go there.

    Sometime in the late twentieth century something changed.  Writers and actors (Lehane, Leary) with my spelling made enough of a dent in the culture to make having a single ‘n’ acceptable.  Perhaps more importantly, we all began collecting and crunching enough data that even those who try to market on autopilot realized that I might like beer over white wine or whatever.

    Let’s be clear.  There is a big brother threat from all sorts of things in our culture, some driven by computer.  For example, bank foreclosures accelerated by robo-signings and lost paper work, but no one thinks about this in a big brotherly fashion.  Why?  Just as Ayn Rand’s economics is fictional, so is Big Brother.  We’re going to have to work harder to find those excessive intrusions on our privacy than reflexively flogging Google and Facebook.

    So, all you Europeans in the sauna, if you want privacy, put your pants back on.

    Published: 12 years ago

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