Where Does Privacy in the Internet end? – On Global Differences And What to Learn from Prism and the Sauna

Rolf Schwartmann, Professor at the Cologne Research Institute for Media Laws, wrote on Friday 12th July 2013 in the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeneine Zeitung, “Freies Surfen”) about the considerable legal differences between different countries.

In Germany, every citizen has to approve to any processing or storage of personal information. This processing or storage has to be tied to a specific usage. This is secured by consitutional laws. Exceptions to this need to be authorized by a court on an individual basis and require important reasons by the law enforcement agencies.

In the U.S. on the other hand, privacy is by the consitution only secured as an appropriate expectation (“angemessene Erwartung”, Schwartmann). As soon as information is handed over deliberately to a third person it is no¬† longer considered as private. Moreover, data privacy of U.S. citizens is overruled by national security concerns. All non-U.S. citizens do not have any data privacy rights from a U.S. perspective.

Three things are obvious here:

  1. There are cultural differences regarding data privacy
  2. There are legal differences regarding data privacy
  3. There’s differences in how internet users from different countries are treated

The cultural and legal differences may have to do with historic experience of Germans – e.g. with the Gestapo or Stasi. Americans on the other hand put more weight on national security.

With respect to the european view on data privacy, a comment from Jeff Jarvis is quite interesting. In 2010, when data privacy and Google Streetview were discussed, Jarvis ridiculed the Germans as beeing paradox, as they have no problem to go to the Sauna naked but do have a problem to have a picture of their house on the internet. Here, the interesting point is asymmetry: In the Sauna you see what I see and no one of us will take something seen outside in form of a picture. But you don’t know who will be looking at your house on Streetview.

Social networks for professionals, like linkedIn and XING, deal with that idea of symmetry: If you want to see who looked at you, you have to pay.

Conclusion: Data Privacy is always about a perceived symmetry between give and take (e.g. take privacy for security) which has to be accepted by the individual. For a global business it means, that data privacy has to be dealt with “glocally”. Data privacy has to be considered not only from a legal but above all from a cultural perspective and cultural differences have to be understood and dealt with.

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