Berlin-based hacker and ‘Fuck Off Google’ campaign organizer, Larry Pageblank, argues Google is far from finished with Berlin, as they adopt a grassroots approach to Europe’s next ‘Silicon Allee’.
BERLIN — After Google’s decision to abandon its planned startup campus in Berlin, the company handed the keys over to two local non-profits — Betterplace.org and Karuna. With an estimated investment value of $14 million, Google gave the two organizations the space rent-free for five years.
Alias Larry Pageblank, a scornful salute to Google’s CEO, believes their decision to hand over the keys is Google’s way of keeping their foot in the door until “the neighborhood will have been ‘cleaned up’ and homogenized…and when protestors of today may have been priced out of their ‘hood.”
Pageblank’s opinion is not an uncommon one in the neighborhood and in some ways, for good reason. The two non-profits share a sizable professional relationship with Google. Most of the recent news coverage on the changeover appeared more like a PR campaign than actual news. Many articles featured an image of Rowan Barnett, Head of Google for Startups, handing the keys to and shaking hands with Betterplace.org and Karuna representatives just outside the space’s doors, an image emblematic of a transition of power. Barnett will also remain in Berlin at the Google office in Mitte, the city center. Further, both organizations are members of the Google Impact Challenge 2018 and provided advice during Google’s campaign to establish their campus in Berlin. Carolin Silbernagl, spokesperson for Betterplace.org, suggested a space for the social sector is needed in the area more than startup spaces.
This relationship begs the question, what’s so bad about two non-profits having financial assistance from Google?
Depending on who you are, there is nothing wrong with it. However, Berliners and Google have not shared a typical, friendly relationship. Berliners are generally more trusting in government decisions and due process than the often-unpredictable choices of multinational corporations. Further, although Google is by and large the most common search engine used in Germany, citizens have only recently begun using Gmail in earnest. In fact, unlike the other Google for Startup campus locations, reports contend Gmail is used anywhere between 14 to 22% in Germany and is preceded by providers GMX at 25% and WEB.DE at 24%. This could in part because the Gmail domain came comparatively late to Germany in 2012. German entrepreneur, Daniel Giersch, had already trademarked Gmail, short for Giersch mail, which forced Google to use googlemail.com.
Despite Berlin’s checkered past with Google, it’s surprising the community does not completely welcome this new alternative to the proposed startup campus. The two non-profits plan to make the space a house for social engagement with the motto #KomminsHaus or “come into the house”. The space is now under construction for their opening in April 2019, and the two organizations are currently asking the public for advice, suggestions and any perspectives through email and in-person on the construction site. The organizations have already gotten a variety of suggestions for the space anywhere from an inclusive studio to an intercultural publishing space. Their transparency and outward-looking approach speak to their intention to provide lasting change for their community members and not simply short-term programs for the next five years.
For those that initially defended the Google for Startups campus, they largely also support this new mission. Julian Jost, a neighboring startup co-founder who supported the Google campus, also backs this new initiative: “The house will be a great addition, and I hope there will still be ways for local startups to be involved with its community initiatives.”
However, if locals believe Google is showing their humanitarian side in order to gain future support from Berliners, I’d say don’t be so naïve. Those against will not be easily swayed. Instead, Google’s grassroots approach is directed towards the electorate’s more trusted administrative force — the government. As the government continues to make it more difficult for non-EU businesses to establish themselves in Germany, Google’s attention to the local could win significant governmental support in the long run.
Ultimately, Google benefits from this association comparatively less than these two local non-profits suffer from it. Organizations like ‘Fuck Off Google’ may end up hurting the reach of their local non-profits in a greater effort to shun the multinational company. Regardless of Google’s reputation, the old substation will be a center of community growth for the district. And for all the Kreuzberg hipsters, at least you still get your co-working spaces.