Knowledge machines between freedom and control/ Hainburg

I’ve attended two great events in October. The first one was a symposium organized by the Institute of Media Archeology (IMA) and Theo Röhle, author of the book “Der Google Komplex. Über Macht im Zeitalter des Internets“. The symposium/ workshop took place in the beautiful Kulturfabrik in Hainburg.

© Kulturfabrik Hainburg

The idea of the event “Knowledge machines between freedom and control” was to bring together researchers, artists and programmers dealing with search engines and new media in a more general sense. I really enjoyed working together with artists and net activists, who have both similar and different viewpoints on the matter. Accordingly, on the first day, we tried to identify our positions on the issue, discuss possibilities and challenges in terms of search engine developments, think about utopias, but also concrete policy actions and implementations. In my workshop group the focus was on user profiling, personalization of search results, user data collections, or our “data bodies”, and their implications. While we easily found various issues to criticize (the filter bubble and privacy issues first and formost), we – or at least I – had trouble developing utopias or thinking outside the present socio-political contexts and structures. Hence, we ended up writing a manifesto on our data bodies, which I found liberating and fun! (thanks to Theo for putting this up). Thinking outside of the box and outside of academic requirements leads to pretty interesting results sometimes! Hence, the combination of researchers, artists and programmers really worked out in terms of having triggered creative ideas, writings and drawings, that wouldn’t have popped up in a merely academic arena.

The second day was meant to be a public event, the public, however, was sort of limited unfortunately. We presented and discussed our workshop results along the lines “index”, “algorithm” and “profile”. Finally, we had a round table discussion. Konrad Becker started out with a critical comment, which was followed by a lively debate on Google and Facebook, monopoly formation, alternative indexes and technology, business models, societal implications and potential futures regarding our knowledge machines and their relation to society and business. Moreover, the art piece “Insight Tower – A world machine” enabled us to stick our heads into the net – a piece by Seppo Gründler, Nicole Pruckermayr, and Elisabeth Schimana. In my viewpoint, it was a truly successful event! I especially liked meeting Theo Röhle, Malte Ziewitz, and Katja Mayer again, who all work at the intersection of search engines and science and technology studies. Moreover, I met really cool people like Seda Gürses doing research on social networks and (EU) policy making, and Joris van Hoboken working on search engines and law/ freedom of expression, as well as the media artist Nicole Pruckermayr and the musician/ performer Reni Hofmüller. And, last but not least, the artist/ performer Elisabeth Schimana, who organized the event and does a great job of leading the IMA . Thanks a lot for putting together this amazing crowd of people and ideas!!

goodtosee #9: Scroogle

I briefly talked about Scroogle in a previous blogpost, but it deserves its own post since it’s such a great tool! Scroogle was developed by Daniel Brandt and basically figures as a proxy for Google search.

That’s how it works according to their website:

Scroogle randomly grabs a Goo IP. Google issues a new cookie with a new ID, and sends the search results. We trash the cookie and save the results in a file that is deleted within the hour. Google records Scroogle’s IP address, the search terms, and the date and time. We parse the file and send the results to the searcher. We don’t use cookies, we don’t save the search terms, and logs are deleted within 48 hours.

Using Google through Scroogle hence protects users’ privacy because it disables the logging and archiving of cookies and IP addresses, which capture users’ search activities. It allows users to enjoy the full search service without feeding user data into the search engine. Contrary to reconfiguring browsers, deleting cookies and other strategies of “digital self-defense”, which often trigger inconveniences, Scroogle maintains the full service (except from Google’s annoying ads). Accordingly, Scroogle may  be seen as exploiting Google. In my perception this is only fair since Google exploits us too by using our web content, linking strategies and, most importantly, our data to create profit. The so-called “user profiling”, the creation of “profiles” out of users’ search terms, search history and locations, is the basis for user-targeted advertising that made Google one of the most profitable companies on earth.*

Scroogle thus enables users to opt out of this economic exploitation scheme, while still providing the benefits of Google search. A clever move! Besides, Scroogle is entertaining too. Its homepage shows a new comic each time you reload the page. Most of the comics make fun of Google, and some of them are truly hilarious:


But check it out yourself, it’s worth risking a look! Another great tool is the Firefox Add-on „TrackMeNot“, which messes up user profiles by sending random search queries to the search engine.

* For an academic discussion on Google’s exploitation scheme within the broader context of capitalist society see, for example:

Fuchs, Christian (forthcoming) A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Google, Fast Capitalism, vol. 8, no. 1.

Mager, Astrid (2011) Algorithmic Ideology. How Society Shapes Search Engines, Conference paper for the OII conference “A Decade in Internet Time” (Oxford, 21-24 September).

Pasquinelli, Matteo (2009) Google’s PageRank. Diagram of the Cognitive Capitalism and Rentier of the Common Intellect, in Deep Search: The Politics of Search Engines beyond Google, eds. K. Becker & F. Stalder, Studienverlag, Innsbruck, pp. 152-162.

goodtosee #4: “take action” digital grassroots initiatives/ Germany

I came across a couple of really interesting grassroots initiatives in the context of net politics recently, which I’d like to share today. In the course of the annual re:publica conference (Berlin, 13-15 April) quite some net initiatives have been launched in Germany. First of all, the Blogger Markus Beckedahl from Netzpolitik.org and others have created the non-profit association “Digital Society”. Its main goal is to launch critical campaigns concerning issues such as data privacy or the widely debated law on Vorratsdatenspeicherung (data retention). If you’re interested in this newly constituted association you might want to watch the interview with Markus Beckedahl on the re:publica channel here (in German):


– Amongst other interviews such as the one with Maxwell Salzberg, the founder of the social networking platform Diaspora (see also blogpost goodtosee #1). Concerning Vorratsdatenspeicherung I also recommend to check out Florian Klenk’s blog post “Bringt dieses Gesetz in Brüssel zu Fall” or the Facebook group “Stop Vorratsdatenspeicherung“.

Moreover, Wolfgang Sander-Beuermann from the “SuMa-eV, Verein für freien Wissenszugang” (see also this blog post) has formulated a proposal against the increasing “dominance of the Internet by global online companies”, as may be read on the SuMa-Ev Website (in German again):

Google im Bereich der Suchmaschinen, Facebook bei den sozialen Netzwerken und Apple im Musikgeschäft sind die Symbole einer zunehmenden Monopolisierung des Internets. Die Idee einer offenen Plattform, einer Agora, auf der sich die Bürgerinnen und Bürger des globalen Dorfes treffen und austauschen können, ist durch die zunehmende Monopolisierung und Segmentierung bedroht. Gerade in Bereich der Suchmaschinen droht hier die Balance zwischen Öffentlichkeit und privaten Unternehmensinteressen außer Tritt zu geraten.

He put forward his suggestion to the newly installed Enquete Commission “Internet and Digital Society” of the German Bundestag. If you would like to support this initiative you can vote for it here:

Finally, the book “Datenfresser. Wie Internetfirmen und Staat sich unsere persönlichen Daten einverleiben und wie wir die Kontrolle darüber zurückerlangen” by Constanze Kurz (Chaos Computer Club) and Frank Rieger may be interesting to read. It treats an increasingly important issue, the collection and commodification of our data by Internet companies, but it also seems to go beyond that by showing us ways to protect ourselves. That’s the impression I got from their website at least.. I guess I’ll order it soon. If you come across similar, or also different initiatives, – please do post them in the comments! I’m sure there is more out there, also beyond the German border hopefully! (What about Austria or Sweden?)

What needs to be done

These are some thoughts on the SuMa conference in Berlin, that I originally posted on the HUMlab blog:

Last week I spent a wonderful time in Berlin. I went there to pick up the SuMa Award my PhD “Mediated Knowledge” (download) received from the “SuMa-eV – Verein fuer freien Wissenszugang”, which makes me very happy!! The society annually awards works dealing with the future of digital knowledge ranging from scientific research, artistical approaches, to technical contributions such as search engines (check out the application deadline in spring!). Besides my PhD, the search engine “NewsClub im Bundestag“, the online dictionary “Linguee“, the scientific search engine ”BASE” and the satire “Google Home View“ were awarded this year. More Infos on the SuMa society could also be found here.

The award ceremony took place on the 6 October as part of the SuMa conference. The central goal of the conference with the title “what needs to be done” was to find ways how the German/ European civil society may shape the future of the world wide web. The title of the conference indicates that the conference organizers, most importantly the director of the society Wolfgang Sander-Beuermann, do not only aim to discuss, but rather to actively participate in the shaping of digital futures. Guiding questions for this challenging undertaking are how could free knowledge exchange be assured? What do we, as a society, know when knowing is equated with Googling? How could transparancy, data security and privacy guaranteed? And what is the role of civil society?

To answer these questions different actors were invited to the discussion including information scientists, policy makers – both German and European, as well as members of the civil society such as activists, bloggers and journalists (for details check the conference programme). While the morning sessions were primarily concerned with the way network technologies change institutions and concepts such as libraries, magazines and knowledge/ information in a broader sense, the afternoon sessions were mostly dealing with privacy issues, data security and legislation. The collision of these different viewpoints clearly showed the challenges involved in creating a digital future meeting all our needs.

One of the challenges is to harmonize local regulations with global trends. US American companies such as Google or Facebook pose privacy issues, that reach the limits of European and local legislation, not least when thinking of contemporary debates around Google Street View. Another challenge seems to be the fact that politics is increasingly overruled by commerce. Regret was expressed amongst some participants that German legislation would be too strict and thus prevent German search engines to grow and compete with global players. But should the answer to that be a liberation of local regulations to compete with the US American economy? Or could (should?) countries such as Germany not rather figure as a critical voice in the global concert and strengthen alternatives to money-driven developments?

This question closely relates to the final discussion on the role of civil society in shaping our digital future/s. While the panel “what politics can do” did not really provide answers, the panel with proponents from the civil society seemed more promising to me. Initiatives such as the European hacker association “Chaos Computer Club” aim to bridge the gap between technical and societal developments, a gap that is no longer filled by science according to the speaker of the CCC Constanze Kurz (an interesting thought that needs further consideration when thinking of Google as a search engine, that originally grew out of the scientific arena, for example). As time went on the discussion crystallized around the question how to strengthen such initiatives. Lars Reppesgaard, the author of the book “Das Google Imperium”, asked whether a bigger, more prominent actor is needed.

Referring to Greenpeace he suggested “DATAPEACE” as a powerful actor, that may better fulfil the role of critically reflecting and actively contributing to the shaping of our networked world. I want to conclude with this suggestion and leave it to the readers to think it further. Since these discussions took place in the German context, it would also be interesting to hear about debates in other cultural contexts such as the Swedish one. Are there similar/ divergent debates? What could we learn from different contexts? Answers are highly welcome..

Personally, I really enjoyed the conference and all the interesting conversations! I want to thank the organizers for inviting and awarding me, and all the participants for sharing their thoughts – both in public and private discussions! Good luck with all your future initiatives and events, it’s important to keep asking “what needs to be done”, even if there are no simple answers to this question. Finally, I also want to thank my friend Axel for letting me stay at his place and showing me all the great restaurants and bars. Berlin is always worth a visit!

Buugle

X3: Buugle – was Google kann können wir schon lange! = a clever and funny – yet disturbing – animation about surveillance/ privacy issues raised by Google and the German federal government. Film made by Alexander Lehmann. (in German)


Filmbeschreibung auf Lehmann’s YouTube Channel: “Deutschland im Jahre 2010. Die Datenkrake „Google” kündigt ihren neuen Dienst „Google Streetview” an. Medien, Bürger und Politiker laufen Sturm. In einem bisher unbekanntem Maß wird die Privatssphäre unbescholtener Bürger durch das Datensammelmonster „Google” verletzt.

Doch haben sie in der Eile ein ganz anderes Projekt völlig aus den Augen verloren. Denn seit einiger Zeit arbeitet die Bundesregierung, ohne viel Aufmerksamkeit zu erregen, an einem eigenen System zum Abbau der lästigen Privatsphäre: Buugle.”