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“If there is one place in the world that could kick this colossus in the nuts,” says Larry Pageblank, “it is Kreuzberg and Berlin.”
The colossus is Google. And “Larry Pageblank” is the playful pseudonym - Larry Page is a co-founder of Google - of a man who is taking a stand against the American tech giant and what he sees as its malign influence on the world. The name of Pageblank’s network, “Fuck off Google”, is also a message - a fairly unsubtle one at that.
“Fuck off Google” is just the most colourfully named group of several that want to stop one of the largest companies in the world from expanding into Kreuzberg.
Key allies include Shitstorm, an “anarchical newspaper” handed out at anti-Google meetings, and Bizim Kiez, a group battling to stop gentrification in Kreuzberg. The groups’ names alone symbolize the increasingly international character of Berlin: Bizim Kiez mixes Turkish and German to say “our hood”, while the English word “shitstorm”, added to German dictionaries a few years ago, means a “storm of indignation” on the internet.
Google hasn’t just picked any old neighborhood. Kreuzberg is one of the hippest, most alternative districts in a city already famous for being hip and alternative. When the city was divided, Kreuzberg was on the west side of the wall, but only just.
The district attracted young artistic types from across Germany, as men in West Berlin were exempt from the otherwise compulsory military service. In the 70s, Iggy Pop and David Bowie used to frequent Kreuzberg's new-age clubs.
Sometimes on May 1st (Labour Day), there is violence in the borough between police and anarchist groups, though this year police said the gatherings were largely peaceful. When McDonald’s opened its first branch in the area in 2007, vandals threw stones at it; Kreuzbergers didn’t like McKultur.
Photo: Noah Gordon
Kreuzberg certainly has history. But at first glance, it is hard to tell what exactly these activists are so upset about. Google has had an office in Berlin’s Mitte district since 2012, and it’s not the only big tech company in the heart of Berlin. The online fashion retailer Zalando is putting down roots nearby, while in 2017 a company called The Factory opened “Europe’s largest club for startups” in Mitte and at Görlitzer Park, a Kreuzberg green space [in]famous for its squads of drug dealers.
In fact, a Google press representative, Dr. Ralf Bremer, repeatedly stressed that what the company is opening in Kreuzberg this autumn is “not a Google office.” It will be the seventh Google campus worldwide, an “education space” where “five to ten Google employees” will provide “mentorship and training to startups and entrepreneurs from Kreuzberg” and surrounding areas.
Indeed, Google will rent only one quarter of the massive Umspannwerk, a former electrical substation already home to a co-working space and a record studio owned by Red Bull. The company is speaking to local community groups, and Bremer claims that locals will like the campus idea once they understand it.
But walking around the future campus, one sees anti-Google posters and flyers everywhere, plastered to benches, on shop-front doors, hanging from window sills.
Inside the Umspannwerk. Photo: DPA
From talking to Google’s opponents, it quickly becomes clear that this fight has symbolic meaning. It’s about what Berlin will become. Local resident Arne Wernitzsch, who was born in Berlin, says “Google is just the tip of the iceberg. It will just make [gentrification] worse… Google could afford to buy all of Kreuzberg, but we don’t need that.”
He is getting at one of Google opponents’ key concerns: stopping gentrification. Berlin is alive with talk of rising rents. In April, over 14,000 Berliners demonstrated at Potsdamer Platz against Mietwahnsinn, or “rent insanity”.
Rents in Berlin are up 46 percent since 2009. House prices in the city are rising faster than anywhere in the world, as we reported in April. And Germany’s rent control law, the Mietpreisbremse, has done little to stop the madness. At its core, the problem is one of supply and demand. The city’s population grows by around 40,000 people a year. Last year, around 15,000 new homes or apartments were built, though newcomers are often willing and able to outbid long-time residents.
Despite the small scale of Google’s plans, Wernitzsch worries that “if there’s a campus, [Google] will need more space in the city.” Wernitzsch is looking for a new flat himself. Konstantin Sergiou, a spokesman for Bizim Kiez, explained that startups are perfect for speculative real estate companies, as they can pay high rents and typically move out after a short time, allowing the company to rent again at a higher price. “Kreuzberg does not need more startups - it can’t take more,” he says.
There is a flip side to this. Both startups and established companies bring new wealth to Berlin when they expand. Even though the capital attracts well educated people from surrounding areas in the still-poorer former East Germany, and benefits from the presence of the federal government, Berliners earn below the German average. Billions of euros from other federal states are redistributed to Berlin each year. New investment can help Berlin and its residents make more money.
SEE ALSO: Berlin only European capital that makes country poorer
However, for at least some opponents, there is more to the issue than gentrification. The Fuck Off Google website attacks the company for “violating human rights” by helping the US National Security Agency carry out mass surveillance and “systematically evading EU taxes”. Germany, where the Gestapo and Stasi terrorized citizens in living memory, is especially hostile to mass surveillance.
The Big US tech companies - Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple - have already run into plenty of trouble in Europe. The European Commission is looking for ways to tax digital companies that make huge profits in Europe, regardless of where they are based.
The Umspannwerk from outside. Photo: Noah Gordon
Meanwhile in the Bundesrepublik, a new law designed to stop hate speech and illegal internet content, NetzDG, makes it possible to fine companies like Google up to €50 million if they don’t delete illegal content quickly enough.
It’s all a far cry from how most of the US treats big tech: in seeking to attract the next Amazon headquarters, American states and localities are competing to give the giant online retailer the largest tax break. (It should be noted that Michael Müller, the Social Democratic mayor of Berlin, has welcomed Google with open arms.)
So is it possible that the anti-Google coalition takes issue with the company in part because it is American?
Pageblank, who speaks in a French accent, says no. “If Google came to the Umspannwerk, and Google was a Chinese company or an Indian company, I think people would react exactly the same”.
The opposition to Google’s Berlin campus, then, is about rising rents and the changing character of Berlin’s coolest neighbourhoods. “Berlin is at a crossroads,” says Sergiou. “Either we pull ourselves together and pressurize politicians… or we will become just another San Francisco, New York or London: divided, over-expensive, monocultural.”
He and his group will keep organizing protests, but Google isn’t concerned. The company, Dr. Bremer says, “has all the permits needed.”