Consumer Protection (2019)

ZEIT Online

The ZEIT newspaper’s online presence receives the BigBrotherAward 2019 in the “Consumer Protection” Category. Firstly, for using advertising trackers and the Facebook Pixel. Second, for the use of Google services in the “Germany Talks” project. This leads to individuals’ political opinions being stored in US servers. Thirdly, for having the succesor project “My Country Talks“ financed by Google. This Faustian pact with one of the biggest data leeches damages journalistic independence.
padeluun am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
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Collage: Auf der linken Seite padeluun am Redner.innenpult der BBAs 2019. Auf der rechten Seite ein Zitat aus seiner Laudatio.

Update: Jochen Wegner accepted the BigBrotherAward to Zeit Online in person, and he received long and respectful applause. It is true that we only investigated the publicly accessible front-end of (where all trackers have since been disabled). Zeit Online insists that the critical remarks we had communicated earlier had already been heard and that the newly developed application, where snippets are embedded into partner media websites, takes extreme care to minimise data. His statements seem plausible. We will continue to observe developments in our continuing dialogue with Zeit Online. The inclusion of the snippets on partner websites that are contaminated with trackers is likely to be a particular challenge. The core message in my award speech remains unchanged. // padeluun, 9 June 2019

The BigBrotherAward 2019 in the “Consumer Protection” Category goes to the online news service “Zeit Online”, represented by its editor-in-chief, and editor for the newspaper “Die Zeit”, Jochen Wegner, for

1) their massive use of ad trackers, including the Facebook Pixel, on their websites and

2) having used, during their 2017 project “Germany Talks”, Google servers to store and process all personal data including political opinion and

3) not only accepting sponsorship for the follow-up project “My Country Talks” from Google, the insatiable advertising company with world-domination fantasies, but for also using tracking tools that can forward information to third parties.

Preliminary Remark

This is the first time that I am giving this award to someone whom Rena Tangens and I have been friends with for many years. It is especially hard to criticise friends. This is why this laudation is in the form of a personal open letter.

And I would like to add a second preliminary remark: We highly value “Die Zeit”, as well as “Zeit Online”. We also appreciate their project “Germany Talks” (“Deutschland spricht”), which has now been internationalised as “My Country Talks”. We know that this BigBrotherAward pertains to at least three quarters of all media houses in Germany, which should also be standing here to receive this award. As is often the case, this BigBrotherAward is intended to make things better: in the media industry, but also in organisations, companies and government institutions.

Dear Jochen,

You have always liked to humorously refer to me as a “long-haired bomb thrower”, and in contrast, in an article you wrote about us in the daily “taz” in May 1995 (when we were still called “FoeBuD”) you were quite impressed by our clean offices and our determined reliability.

When we skated from Bielefeld to Bonn on inline skates in 1998, to receive an award called “Sinnformation” (“Sense-Information”), we slept in your living room.

Forward to 2017, the year of a federal election campaign. You were planning a project that was to bring you admiration and honour. It is called “Germany Talks”. People with preferably contrary opinions are to talk to each other, in private and in person, face-to-face. Interested people could apply on a website. 28 000 people answered your questionnaire with nine questions about political points of view. Then two people with contrary opinions, living not too far from each other, would be put into contact so they could talk on neutral ground. You accompanied some of these meetings and wrote about them. You, Jochen, editor-in-chief and co-inventor of the project, took part yourself. Your article about your meeting with “Neighbour Mirko” is a brilliant piece of journalism.

The project “Germany Talks” was given — and entirely deserved — a Grimme Online Award last year.

One thing, however, was really daft: as always, everything had to be done quickly and cheaply. So you stored and processed the entire data of all participants including their political opinions in the cloud tools of Google’s Office Suite. Zeit employees, including yourself, told us that you used these tools for other parts of distributed editorial work (whistleblowers will now have their hair standing on end).

It is so tempting for businesses: I can easily use this professional cloud service to process my customer data, my mails and my calendars. To make it appear compliant with data protection regulations, one has to sign a lengthy agreement. While a friendly “” smiles on from the address bar, you click “accept” and enter into a contract with a Google company, allegedly headquartered in Ireland.

I checked: the evidence I can find on the location of these cloud services points to Mountain View, California, and these services are operated by “Google LLC”.

What’s so bad about processing editorial content and political opinions of people on the computers of a big company striving for a global monopoly? After all, you signed a mutual contract, which stipulates that the data is completely secure, and there is also the EU–US Privacy Shield agreement.

But Privacy Shield is just window dressing. I can read that in at least 40 search results on Zeit Online. A further 160 results on the Zeit Online websites tell me that there is a thing called FISA.1 The “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act”. According to this act, US intelligence agencies have unlimited access to data about non-US citizens stored at US companies, whenever they like and regardless of server location. And as we have learned from Edward Snowden, US government agencies had a dedicated line to Google.

Wouldn’t it be a bit naïve to assume that your data, the data of all “Germany Talks” participants, and your informants’ data, etc. has not found its way onto the NSA’s computers quite early on?

And you should know better. I can find the name “Edward Snowden” on your website 1 600 times. You have published grand articles about the Snowden case, outstanding analyses, FAQs and comments. Have you pushed all that aside? It is not all that bad?

And there is this: If I read correctly, the Zeit Online websites are delivered via a Content Delivery Network called “Fastly”. The IP addresses I tested point to Paris, but Fastly is a US company, headquartered in San Francisco, California. As I said before: FISA applies even if the servers of a US company are located in Europe. This law supersedes any contract you may have with a company.

Back to “Germany Talks”. Observant readers already nominated you for a BigBrotherAward in 2017. We advised you early on that what you were doing on Google infrastructure was a total no-go. And now you have developed the project further. It is now called “My Country Talks”. You had software developed, and you have partners in fifty countries using it. And in all these countries you help people get together and talk to each other. (I have to emphasise this again: This project is great, please, by all means, continue!)

The quick realisation of the 2017 project was done in “digitalisation first, concerns second”2 style. Anyway, the new software is no longer hosted with Google in the USA but in Frankfurt, Germany.

In the Amazon cloud.

Of course I cannot audit your service provider’s software from outside; privately you assured me that data were no longer processed on Google computers. And of course I looked at the privacy statement, which is identical to the one at Zeit Online.

I even printed it out. It is seventy-nine (79) pages long. Some of the phrases I had to have translated with the help of IT security expert Mike Kuketz’s blog:

You utilise tracking technology from DoubleClick, and go on to explain in the privacy statement that you don’t know exactly what Google does with the data they collect. And there is the “DoubleClick Bid Manager” – hang on, they are now the “Google Marketing Platform”, where everything is interlocked even more and where Google Analytics (mentioned two pages on) is integrated even more deeply. And people can log in with their Facebook account. And there is the Facebook Pixel: you betray to Facebook who your readers are. All of them! Even those who deliberately do not have an account with the data criminals at Facebook. Now what Facebook does with that data, you don’t know either, as you note in the privacy statement. At least that’s honest, but legally that means that you are not allowed to use this technology. At least that is my understanding of the General Data Protection Regulation. And even more Google, Facebook, Google, Facebook, Google, Google. AdSense, AdWords, Google Publisher Tags, Tag Manager (where new trackers can be activated day by day!) and so on and so forth. Oh, Google Fonts, these fonts downloaded from Google, they are not even mentioned. Roughly 30 trackers and services are mentioned in your privacy statement; when I “surf by” Zeit Online I retrieve content from about 140 different locations. You, distinguished audience, can try this yourself using the two easy tools called “WebKoll”3 and PrivacyScore.4 By the way: The privacy statement of “My Country Talks” mentions using an insane number of trackers and third-party sites: in reality there are “only” a few. But these few are among the worst: DoubleClick, Google Analytics, Google Fonts and the Google Tag Manager, for example.

I dream of “Die Zeit” publishing a comprehensive edition that explains all trackers and shows (with fancy graphics and ingenious data journalism) what flows where and what kind of reader tracking systems you have created. And don’t just always say “marketing and optimisation purposes”, as if the brutal truth was not simply to make money.

Apropos of money …

As I said numerous times before: other editorial offices and publishing companies work the same way you do. Three quarters of all news sites use trackers, as shown very clearly by a blog post on Everywhere journalists are desperate to make money in ways other than selling out and betraying their readers’ data. And the big wigs in the publishing companies and editorial offices always look down upon us “long-haired bomb throwers”, who are idealistic, and who simply don’t understand that one has to earn money in this world, and that concerns simply are “second”. And I hear again and again that “everybody’s doing it”. Sometimes that can sound a tad arrogant.

So how can I say it without sounding arrogant myself? “Everybody’s doing it” is not a good way to explain why someone leaves ethics and morals behind. And we are familiar with this challenge: Us idealists also have to raise money to fund our work for another year, and also to pay for the BigBrotherAwards.

To this end we sell things like subscriptions (supporting memberships) and single issues (donations). Digitalcourage pays monthly wages. But we do not use Google software. We do not pour our membership database into the cloud. We think FIRST about protecting those who entrust our data to us. We carefully select free software, build networks so they can be developed and adapted for Germany. Hey, there would be unbelievable opportunities for start-ups, markets and technical innovation, better business models and enjoyable jobs. The only thing missing is that you (and to all those publishers, organisations, government agencies to whom this applies as well) start collaborating, instead of throwing money and souls across the pond and trading a free future without surveillance capitalism for one or two (biblical) lentil dishes.

But Google is one of the most greedy companies, which strives for a data monopoly, spreads itself far and wide with friendly insignia, offers table-top football in their offices, where MEP assistants like to stop by and have a Mate and chill out, which holds web design competitions, co-funds a conference here and two professorships there, which (just like Facebook) sponsors trips to the “Valley” for journalists and offers full journalism fellowships. In other words: Google, Facebook and the like engage in textbook lobby-“landscaping”. What could be better than to fund a software for Zeit Online for a friendly, unifying project?

And while us “long-haired bomb throwers” warn of the data leech Google, Google looks, to people who consider themselves completely normal, completely normal. These people take Google’s web tools, integrate them into small projects, and collect data for Google (which they usually don’t notice). Editors come up with the idea of using Google Office for editorial work without their inner watchdog, which every journalist must have, barking. Thus it erodes away, the soul.

The journalist Alexander Fanta wrote in an opinion on netzpolitik.org6 how ashamed he feels for having accepted both his journalism fellowships from Google, and why he wouldn’t do it again. In 2018 he and colleague Ingo Dachwitz investigated7 much money Google spends on media projects.

Almost everyone accepts money: FAZ received 500 000, Der Spiegel 700 000, taz 109 000, Funke media group 500 000, Wirtschaftswoche 600 000, the Berlin Tagesspiegel several 100 000 €, Rheinische Post 300 000. “In fact”, Fanta and Dachwitz write, “it is easier to list the large publishers who have not been supported: remarkably, Axel Springer, Hubert Burda and Süddeutsche Zeitung are missing.”

I remember an image that sent shivers down my spine in 2013: German chief editors travel to Silicon Valley. They visit all the nice data leeches, take photos at some conference table or in a visiting lounge. But one image shows a complete lack of instinct: The group of chief editors present themselves in front of the Facebook banner in the Facebook headquarters. That is a statement about “concerns never”. Of course it is useful to keep oneself informed about new digital media and look at them oneself. But one should never pose in front of the banner of the enemy, who is stealing your jobs and your advertising money, and take a PR photo.

It fits into the story of corruption that just the other day a board member of the German Journalists’ association (Deutscher Journalistenverband, DJV) published the following statement, with “Gimme the Dough!” (original: Her mit der Kohle) in the caption, and I quote verbatim:

“Facebook funds a ‘Digital Journalism Fellowship’ for the Hamburg Media School, including a class trip to the US. Whoever thinks of large-scale interference has failed to understand two fundamental things: First, Google, Facebook and others have long been financing journalism by offering specific education opportunities, at the Hamburg Media School, and also in the DJV. Second, experienced journalists have enough media competency to know exactly what they are getting themselves into.”

This article makes us doubt precisely that.

Therefore, dear Jochen, here is what I would wish for: Abandon the path of advancing surveillance capitalism and bartering away your readers’ data as a prize for your journalistic work. Give the money back to Google. Persevere in searching for other ways of conducting and financing journalism in dignity. Demand the same from your publishers! That would be an innovation!

If this wish were to come true, if this BigBrotherAward could help, then I will say gladly and from the bottom of my heart:

Congratulations, dear Zeit Online, dear Jochen, for the BigBrotherAward 2019 in the “Consumer Protection” category.


Updates to this awardee

Unfortunately, we do not have the capacity to translate our updates into English.

padeluun am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
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1 FAQ by Zeit on Edward Snowden, Prism, FISA etc. (German: Das FAQ der Zeit zu Edward Snowden, Prism, FISA etc.) (Web-Archive-Link)

2 A much-parodied campaign slogan (“Digital first. Bedenken second.”) in the 2017 German election campaign by the liberal party, FDP.

3 Webkoll-Tool

4 PrivacyScore-Tool

5 Facebook trackt Nutzer auf drei Viertel aller deutschen Nachrichtenseiten (Web-Archive-Link)

6 Ich nahm das Google-Geld. Warum ich es heute nicht mehr machen würde. (Web-Archive-Link)

7 (Web-Archive-Link)

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

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The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.