The anti-Google alliance

In the fight against the tech giant’s planned move to Kreuzberg, local anti-gentrification activists and expat anti-surveillance hacktivists have found a common enemy.

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Protesters outside the Umspannwerk in December 2017. Photo by Lause 10/Umbruch Bildarchiv e.V.

In the fight against the tech giant’s planned move to Kreuzberg, local anti-gentrification activists and expat anti-surveillance hacktivists have found a common enemy. You can observe or join in the fight during Friday’s “Noise Against Google Campus” demonstration on April 6, 18:00.

In the small back room of the Kalabal!k anarchist library on Reichenberger Straße, a circle of chairs has been neatly arranged around a table laden with home-baked cakes and flasks of coffee. On another table, pamphlets and leaflets about gentrification issues, mega surveillance, big data and smart cities have been carefully set out in piles. Copies of a German-language newspaper entitled Shitstorm: Against Google, displacement and tech dominance… are passed around. Gradually the room fills and the “Anti-Google Café” meeting begins.

Held every second and fourth Saturday of the month, the meeting has been set up to discuss what’s seen by many as a threat to their neighbourhood: the planned Google Campus at the nearby Umspannwerk. Just one of several local initiatives intent on challenging the tech giant’s plans, the group aims to offer space for an “informal and self-organised fight” against the campus. The meeting has attracted a pretty typical Kreuzberg crowd – a fairly equal spread of men and women, mostly long-term residents, left-leaning and eloquent in their fight against Gentrifizierung. Among them are a scattering of newer implants to the area, expats who in other scenarios could easily be seen as gentrifiers themselves. The first topic of discussion is whether the meeting should be held in English or German. Without much fuss, the group decides on the latter. Some newcomers are content to practice their Deutsch; translation is provided to others. Today, everyone is welcome, united in their wish to defeat Google.

As first announced in November 2016, the company intends to transform part of the Umspannwerk, a former electric substation on Ohlauer Straße, into a Google Campus, its seventh after London, Tel Aviv, Seoul, Madrid, São Paulo, and Warsaw. The site is set to become a space for tech go-getters to “learn, connect, and create companies that will change the world”. In other cities, the concept includes coworking spaces, cafés, offices and conference rooms, all intended to give start-uppers mentorship and training opportunities from local entrepreneurs as well as a small team from Google itself.

Spearheading the project is Rowan Barnett, the British head of Germany’s Google for Entrepreneurs programme, formerly marketing director at Twitter and editor-in-chief of the English-language version of Bild. “Berlin is one of the most thriving hubs for innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe and the world. With Campus, our goal is to continue to support and accelerate that innovation,” he says.

It was a move welcomed by mayor Michael Müller, who described the news as a “good day in Berlin.” Indeed, as Berlin seeks to establish itself as a major start-up hub, the decision certainly sounds like a big coup. Despite the multitude of companies that have moved in over the past decade, the German capital is still heavily indebted with little industry and high unemployment, and any opportunity to attract investment and create jobs is typically welcomed by the city.

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By late summer, the Umspannwerk is slated to become the site of Google’s seventh Campus for local entrepreneurs and Google employees. Photo by Gunnar Klack (CC BY 4.0)

Google the gentrifier

Like many tech firms, Google already has an office in Mitte, which opened in 2012 to no fuss. But locals south of the river fear that the arrival of the campus in Kreuzberg will worsen the gentrification trend that’s already seen the formerly scrappy area turn into a hip promenade with real estate price to boot. According to figures from the Berliner Wohnmarkt-Report, the average price for a 75sqm apartment in the 10999 (Görlitzer Park) postal area now stands at €1082 (warm), representing a 95 percent increase since 2009. The worry is that Google’s presence will further price locals out of their flats and act as yet another magnet for property speculators.

It’s a tricky dilemma for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district councilor Florian Schmidt, who heads the neighbourhood’s department of construction. “When a big enterprise comes into a small neighbourhood it can change the fabric of the area,” he says. “I’m a sociologist and understand the arguments, I know the debates in Silicon Valley.” When Google submitted their proposal for the site in April of last year, Schmidt’s committee initially rejected it. “It wasn’t our objective to make the project fail, but we couldn’t just roll out the red carpet.” In September, the proposal was approved, with a few changes: a proposed co-working space in the basement is now a café, and the premises will now close at 9:30pm, rather than being open 24/7.

Another of Schmidt’s conditions was more dialogue between Google and the public. At the end of September, Google held an invite-only “Open Day” for neighbourhood residents (and a few riot police). Barnett considered it a success. “The conversations that we have had with many residents, local business owners and NGOs so far, as well as the feedback from our open day event, have been very positive and led to some great projects we are now working on,” he says.

In the context of gentrification in Kreuzberg, Google is pouring fuel on the fire.

Kreuzberg’s anti-gentrification associations, meanwhile, were utterly unconvinced. This includes Bizim Kiez, a Wrangelstraße initiative founded in 2015 to protest the eviction of beloved local grocery Bizim Bakkal after the premises were purchased by an outside investor. (The store ultimately closed in 2016.) “In the overall context of gentrification in Kreuzberg they are pouring fuel on the fire, simply by the fact that the value of housing close to Google Campus will increase,” a spokesperson for the association said. “For real estate companies,

Google will become a speculation factor for the area.” Together with like-minded groups GloReiche Nachbarschaft and Lause Bleibt, they organised a well-attended demo outside the site in December 2017. On the side of the building, they unfurled a banner reading “Google isn’t a good neighbour”. Another group present at the protest was more to the point: “Fuck Off Google”.

The hacktivists take action

I care about Google not just as a terrible neighbour, but as a terrible entity to have in the world.

“As much as I do believe it’s critical for the future of Kreuzberg, for the neighborhood, it’s much broader than that. I care about Google not just as a terrible neighbour, but as a terrible entity to have in the world,” begins Sergey Schmidt, the man behind the website Fuckoffgoogle.de. A charismatic French hacktivist who asked to be identified only by his pseudonym (an amalgamation of Google founder Sergey Brin and former CEO Eric Schmidt), Schmidt moved to his “beloved” Berlin in 2016 after years of digital rights activism. He now lives just a few blocks away from the planned campus, and last October, a poster about the Kalabal!k anti- Google meetings caught his eye. “I didn’t go immediately because it was in German… but after a full month of self-inflicted frustration, I finally went and I was amazed at how much was going on already – I immediately knew we should document this.” When the Frenchman returned to Kalabal!k two weeks later, it was to announce that Fuckoffgoogle.de was up and running, collating all the anti-Google information and efforts in one place. It was also Schmidt’s goal “to make this more visible and help people who are non-German find a way to participate.” Today, the website has been translated into German and 20 people contribute to it.

To Schmidt, Google “represents so much of what is going wrong in this world today”. He points to its history of tax evasion, its business model of data collection and its ties with dubious subsidiaries such as Sidewalk Lab (smart cities), Calico (transhumanism) and Replicant (robotics). “If you look at their discourse, it’s like they’re coming here to do philanthropy. And there is such a disconnect between what people think they are and what they truly are,” he says. For him, gentrification is the least of the tech company’s evils. He’s found a few hacktivist kindred spirits on the same wavelength, like the publishers of Shitstorm, which has been distributed to 8000 local homes and concerns itself with fighting the “tech-elite”, mass surveillance and automation. But for the most part, Schmidt says that most people have no clue: “There was just one guy who had worked for Google himself – he’d spent years deleting the data that was collected to protect people, and took it really personally. But the problem is not whether you erased it or not, the problem is that it was collected in the first place!”

For Schmidt, the idea that the campus will be used as a base to benefit the community is a falsehood: “The whole point is to mature those ideas and those talents until they’re ready to be harvested. These people will come for one year, maybe spend lots of money and then move. This is not how you reinforce cohesion and solidarity in the neighbourhood. On the contrary, you create an elitist class that doesn’t give a shit.”

A gentrifier like any other?

Barnett is eager to show that the gentrification concerns are overblown. “We live in Berlin ourselves, we understand the concerns about how Kreuzberg has been developing in recent years. But to be clear: we have only rented a quarter of the Umspannwerk, and no more than five to 10 people from Google will work there. We want to be good neighbours,” he says. Renovation work is underway and the campus is currently set to open in late summer. “Kreuzberg has always been a place that has attracted creatives from all walks of life, and that is generally a great foundation for a startup ecosystem,” Barnett adds. He points to Native Instruments, EyeEm and Betahaus as testimonials of Kreuzberg’s already-thriving start-up community.

Pessimists might argue that the gentrification of the neighbourhood started a long time ago. And with Zalando putting down roots in the long-empty lot by Schlesisches Tor and the imminent opening of a branch of start-up hub The Factory at the edge of Görlitzer Park (both projects also contested), Google might not be the only huge tech company to be investing in the area. But it is surely the most incompatible with the radical leftist, anti-corporate, pro-neighbourhood values Kreuzberg has historically stood for. As Schmidt says, “I think that by making a point about not wanting them here in the neighbourhood, we will also be able to expose them for who they really are. And this is, to me personally, the most important part of it all.”