Online giant Google funds Internet institute in Berlin | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 30.10.2011
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Online giant Google funds Internet institute in Berlin

Internet giant Google is investing in a research institute that will look at the relationship between the web and society in general. However, some are questioning the motives that it has for doing so.

A magnifying glass with Google logo in focus

Google itself could come under scrutiny by institute academics

The Internet giant Google has learnt from recent history that it still has much to understand about the places and people for which it provides services.

In Germany, in particular, there have been numerous problems and it seems there is a lot that the Internet company has yet to discover.

Many Germans simply put their foot down when it came being themselves photographed or having their homes displayed on Google Streetview. German web users also rebeled when they were told it was not possible to use a pseudonym on its social networking site. And, there is the problem with data protection - something for which Google has often been criticized by German authorities.

Prof. Ingolf Pernice

Academics from different spheres will need to understand each other, says Pernice

So, it appears apt that the Californian business has stated its own academic project, the Institute for Internet and Society, in Germany itself.

The new institute at the Humboldt University of Berlin cost some four-and-a-half million euros ($6.3 million). "This is a great idea," said Ingolf Pernice, one of the four founding directors of the institute and a law professor at Humboldt University.

"We want to understand how the Internet is changing our world and here we can investigate it in an interdisciplinary way."

The questions that arise are multiple, although they still have to be properly formulated: Copyright, political mobilization, the transformation of the public sphere.

Together, experts in law, the media and politics would look at these issues from their own individual perspectives. "First of all, we just have to learn to mutually understand each other," said Pernice.

As well as the Humboldt University, Berlin University of the Arts (UDK) and the city's Social Science Research Center (WZB) are involved and Hamburg's Hans Bredow Institute is also cooperating.

Stressing the need for independence

While the desirability of the project is perhaps understandable, what drives Google to donate several million dollars to it? Admittedly, with quarterly profits - most recently - of 2.73 billion dollars, it is relatively small change, but the connection has raised concerns.

Is the internet giant - described by some as a data-gathering monster - now stretching its tentacles into the realm of free and supposedly independent research? "We have kick-started the Institute for Internet and Society and provided the money for that," said Google spokesman Ralf Bremer, "and we look forward to the results."

Ralf Bremer

Bremer says that, even if study results are critical of Google, they would be valued

Bremer denied that there might be any pressure exerted when it came to results and research issues. "If results that are critical of Google arise, that is okay," said Bremer. "Dialogue is important."

And at least the institute brought the company a positive couple of days of headlines. Meanwhile, it is notable how often the independence of the institute is stressed.

Two entities have actually been established, one for research and the other dealing with sponsorship. It is hoped that more supporters can be brought on board. "We are taking part in the search," said Bremer.

No rare thing

It is not particularly rare for academia to take the money of private investors. The academic innovation body Stiftverband has registered more than 600 professors who are paid through private business.

The researchers are in fact encourage to try and find extra funding for their research. Those who are successful can enjoy a good standing in their universities - although they may sometimes be met with suspicion.

Indeed, there are examples of donor organizations being perceived to use such arrangements to their advantage. One such example was Deutsche Bank, which contributed three-million euros to a professorship in finance and was then accused of trying to wield influence to its advantage.

But director Pernice, has few worries about the ethics of the situation. "If the Google people tell me one day that they do not like my work, I will start working again with European law," he said and jokingly added that "at the moment, I think I am the one that is exploiting Google."

Author: Heiner Kiesel / rc
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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