Why “the Berlin startup scene” does not care (much) for #Landesverrat

Last Saturday I did something I otherwise basically never do: I (intentionally) passed by a protest, in this case one for press freedom (see Landesverrat.org) and even walked along, for most of it (shortly before the end, I had to leave). Admittedly, I most likely would not have bothered to go, if I did not have a meeting nearby soon after anyways. I am politically interested, maybe even somewhat “engaged”, compared to the average, but in relation to the total time and energy I have, I do not put a whole lot of it into politics at the moment.

Anyways. As there were not always (engaging) speeches or something else interesting going on, I read along the Twitter timeline for #Landesverrat, practiced some clicktivism/slacktivism by retweeting things I found interesting, writing a few Tweets myself etc.. Then I came across this Tweet that I found interesting: “You know whom I never see at these kind of protests? The Berlin startup scene. #Landesverrat” – I think it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what the startup scene is really “about”.

Based on the replies to that Tweet and posts by people in startups I read later, there actually were at least a handful people from startups around, by the way. However, the general direction that Berlin startups are not particularily “visible” in “these kinds of protests” – I assume protests about press freedom, privacy, again mass surveillance are meant (the topics Netzpolitik.org mainly concerns itself with) –  is probably correct. The one startup I do see engaging here, is Protonet – and they are from Hamburg. Arguably, they do that because it also fits to their product and might help to sell it.

Data & Privacy & Surveillance

For some (ideological) reasons that seem rather bizarre from here, some people, especially in the US, are A-OK with private mass surveillance and data collection, while at the same time they are also very keen on limiting the governments activities in these areas. In Germany, however, it’s often one and the same: If you are concerned about private data collection, you are usually also concerned about government data collection.

While, at least to my knowledge, there might be no close equivalent to Palantir in Berlin – a startup that earns a large chunk of it is revenue by working on tools for government surveillance  – a significant share of the startups in Berlin are either in advertising, or in areas related to advertising. As advertising is a business that relies on mass data collection and analysis, it is actually against their interest to support the general political direction of Netzpolitik.org. (At the very least, most later-stage startups in Berlin have investors that are also invested in advertising companies.)

What startups are about – Priorities

Startups are about making money and/or building something big. Being anti-establishment, politically contrarian, rebellous etc. is often not part of the agenda, usually only on particular issues, if it aligns to these two goals and sometimes as a marketing ploy. Startups are not punk bands and startup culture is also not hacker culture, they only have limited overlap. Your startup is usually at odds with big institutions to the extent the product/market necessitates and otherwise, you try to build any helpful partnership with major organizations, government or corporate, possible to bring the company ahead.

Uber, as probably the startup that a lot of founders see as a role-model for their company right now (maybe less so in Berlin than elsewhere, but still to a significant extent), employs an army of lawyers to deal with regulation and is very active in political lobbying – but only in the particular areas that relate to their business model. Plus they have investment from Goldman Sachs, Google, Microsoft – companies that are, by-and-large, hardly at odds with what Western governments do for them. This actually applies to the interests most other investors have, too, and to build something big (and sometimes also to get your startup to make money) you often need these investors.