By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief
These past two weeks have been an interesting time to be a reporter who straddles the two sides of the Atlantic. The ongoing Department of Justice court case with Apple and scandal at the NSA have underscored the vast gulf in attitude between the governments of the United States and Europe when it comes to handling the book business, privacy and information.
Earlier this week we reported on the publishing crisis in Europe. In response to falling consumer demand, aging bookstores, and overly centralized publishing, the Russian government has decided to target $100 million at trying to solve the book industry’s problems. In France the government routinely invests large sums of money to support its publishing industry. In the latest infusion — €9 million, is aimed at helping independent bookstores fight off the “destructive” power of Amazon (in the words of French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti).
Meanwhile, back in the United States, the government and its lawyers are busy dragging many of America’s top publishing executives into court to testify in the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Apple and the publishers for alleged price fixing — a lawsuit that one might be le to believe was instigated by and ultimately largely benefits Amazon. As you no doubt know, all the publishers cited in the lawsuit — HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Penguin and Macmillan — have already settled with the government, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars; only Apple, with its deep pockets and reputation to uphold, is still fighting.
Elsewhere in the news on both sides of the Atlantic the revelation that America’s National Security Agency has been conducting widespread, heretofore secret monitoring of communications data. Among the companies complying with requests for information via the government’s PRISM program are Google, Apple Microsoft and Facebook.
News of PRISM has caused fits, especially in Europe, which had been in discussions with the US to align its policies regarding online privacy and information. Germany, where Obama is scheduled to make a state visit next week, is especially upset. German’s sensitive to governments collecting large amounts of information on individuals and citizens, largely as a symptom of the country’s history under the Nazis and Soviet Union; one German official called the information gathering “Stasi methods.” That has revealed that Germany is the most closely monitored of all the countries in the EU has not helped matters at all.
This kind of sensitivity to data collection is also at issue when it comes to the book business, which has been doing its best to marshall the power of “big data” for marketing and sales efforts. But it also impacts some of the underlying digital infrastructure of the business as well.
Earlier this year while I was attending the Klopotek Publishers Forum in Berlin, I sat in on a meeting where Microsoft representatives pitched publishers on using Microsoft’s Azure cloud data storage platform. It was an impressive presentation, albeit one that left several in the room feeling cold. “When Microsoft said that their backups and redundant storage was located on servers in the United States, I knew it was ‘no deal,'” one German executive told me.
I asked him to explain. “What if the US government to revive use of the Patriot Act to take a look at our data or maybe even hold it hostage? I can’t take that sort of risk. At least in Germany, I know what the laws are.”
At the time, I thought he sounded a touch paranoid; it’s now clear that his suspicion was not misplaced.
It is clear that there is a stark differences in attitude between the United States an Europe. And it’s not all due to history and politics. While the French government is currently Socialist — supporting the underdog is institutionalized — the same could hardly be said for Russia under Putin. Instead it can only be a attributed to a difference in values.
Americans are, pure and simple, capitalists — and not always the most pragmatic ones at that.
In America, it took the government and states years and millions more in lobbying and other efforts from booksellers just to force Amazon merely to collect taxes, something which was seen as important to level the playing field. At the same time, it took a single horrible terrorist attack — one that I witnessed from my office window — for our underlying values to erode and for it to become acceptable to secretly spy on “foreigners,” a word Obama evoked in defense of the PRISM program.
Lest we forget, we are a country founded “foreigners,” one whose values and actions are increasingly foreign to the rest of the world. And, frankly, sometimes even ourselves.