Perception of privacy in Europe and USA

Discussing with one of Google’s lawyers  about the different perceptions of privacy in Europe and in USA, he was puzzled that European politicians and people always say that for them privacy is very important and they want it protected from “evil corporations”. The somewhat rational explanation that Google gets is that the memory of oppressive regimes (the nazi/fascism and later the communists) is still clear in people’s minds. This should explain why so many Europeans get upset when a corporation stores a picture of the facades of their homes.

But, he asked me, why do Europeans trust the governments that in recent past turned against them and keep giving them huge amount of personal data but don’t trust the corporations?  It’s not rational, he commented.

I think the main reason why Europeans people (still) trust governments is that both share the same cultural background: governments know how to persuade, mediate and communicate directly to their people and spin the most awful controlling measures into ‘good things’. Think of the Telecamera Amica (the ‘friendly camera’) in Florence: every corner of the city has these surveillance devices. It’s a videocamera but it’s not a friend. The city marketed as a security/prevention system, people feel better but as a result they get just more traffic tickets. Another horrible example is the Data Retention Directive, defined as “the most privacy-invasive instrument” by the European Data Protector Supervisor.

My short answer is that it would probably be more effective not to treat the perception of privacy as a rational/irrational issue. I would approach this more with the tools of marketing and diplomacy than with those of the law, working on improving the perception of Google and its tools within European people. For example, increase the visibility of projects like dataportability.org, be a champion of transparency. And, if possible, loosen up the image of the big colonizer corporation from Silicon Valley and be more humble, mingle as a European company.