Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Happily walking into the bubble

It’s Saturday and you’re walking through your favorite supermarket. You’ve invited friends for tonight and you’re planning to have a barbecue.

The first thing you look for is meat. As you’re stepping into the meat section, a freezer pushes itself in your way. It bears a note saying “Your colleague chose spiral sausages and chicken filets last week”. You take a peak inside the freezer, your hand finds the spiral sausages and they disappear in your cart. Never did you notice the beefsteaks across the aisle that were on a 20% discount.

Your hands push the cart further. You also need a proper barbecue grill to feed your guests. Just the other day, you remember reading about one in a leaflet and it that seemed quite nice. But as your getting to the section where barbecue grills are sold, only two of the available models are actually on display. All other are stocked on the shelves, hidden away in massive cardboard boxes. “Your mom bought me just yesterday” it says on one of the grills on display, while the other bears a sign “Three members from your football team bought me last summer”. Unnerved, under time pressure and unwilling to start unpacking the other models, you opt for the football team grill – it is less practical than the one you had read about, but it will work for tonight.

You remember that you also need to get a shampoo. Once arrived in the toiletry section, you look for the shampoo you’ve seen in a commercial the other day. It was produced with 100% organic materials, and obviously more expensive than most of the bottles you’ve got in front of you on the shelf. But your brand is nowhere to be found and all shampoos are screaming in your face “Gregory bought me!”, “Cedric bought me!”, “Dean bought me!” Exasperated, you brandish your arm and send bottles flying. In the last corner of the shelf, you find the brand that you were looking for. You cautiously put the trophy in your cart and your glimpse goes back to the other bottles, still scattered on the floor. You believe you can faintly hear them shriek “but your friends also bought us, why wouldn’t you do the same?”

Google +1 works with the same system as your shopping adventure. As you are searching information on the internet, Google puts you into a bubble of friends’ recommendations that obscure your view upon other options. The next time you search something, your friends' recommendations appear on top. This might not seem so much of a problem at first sight – isn’t it practical to have your social network prepare your decisions?

But what happens if you’re a Parliamentarian with a day to work out your position on prenatal diagnostics? Would you trust your social network enough to blend out contrasting opinions? What happens if you’re a journalist, looking for speedy information on the revolution in Yemen? Can you trust your social network to have closed all the information gaps?

The European Commission is currently investigating if Google illegally downgraded external services in its search results. By accepting +1, we would allow Google to upgrade information that we are prone to like and downgrade information that we’d likely oppose. Democracy doesn’t work like this.

Update: For more about the importance of global information and knowledge management, you may listen to this podcast. Google is certainly the fundamental player in this business.
Update II: Facebook has not paid me for writing this post.  
Update III: I've just seen that Blogger now added the +1 button to my me a favor, don't use it.   
Update IV: To see my love for Google as a research tool, see this more recent blogpost.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Parliament clings to Strasbourg

MEP Ville Itälä is a brave man. In his report on "discharge in respect of the implementation of the European Union general budget for the financial year 2009" regarding the European Parliament, he proposed that the European Parliament

  • Takes note of the budgetary constraints many Member States face as a result of the financial and economic crisis and the need to critically review potential savings at all levels including at Union level; in light of this situation, stresses that real savings could be achieved if Parliament only had one workplace in the same location as the other Union institutions; indeed, in the report of the Secretary-General on Parliament's preliminary draft estimates for 2011, the estimated annual cost arising from the geographical dispersion of Parliament has been estimated at around EUR 160 000 000, accounting for about 9% of Parliament's total budget; draws the attention to the fact that currently the decision to change this situation - and to make some EUR 160 000 000 of savings annually as well as to considerably lessen Parliament's carbon footprint - lies exclusively with the European Council (Member States); calls on the President of the European Parliament and on the Members who are negotiating the Union budget on behalf of the Parliament, to suggest to the European Council that they make it possible for the Union to make these savings. 
  • Also points to the reply given by the Secretary-General to the discharge questionnaire, according to which the two sessions held in Brussels instead of Strasbourg in September 2008, due to the repair of the ceiling in the Strasbourg hemicycle, resulted in savings estimated at some EUR 2 500 000 ;

To suggest to the Member States the idea of scrapping Strasbourg was too much to ask from the European Parliament. In the version that MEPs adopted on Monday 9 May 2011, it only says that the European Parliament
  • Takes note of the budgetary constraints many Member States face as a result of the financial and economic crisis and the need to critically review potential savings at all levels including at Union level; in light of this situation, stresses that real savings could be achieved if Parliament only had one workplace in a single location.

Thanks to Eva for making me aware of the vote.  

Update (13/07/2011): Now it seems as though a majority of MEPs wanted to axe trips to Strasbourg.

Monday, May 9, 2011

One year, little change. Happy Birthday Europe

Happy Birthday Europe. It's a sour birthday. There isn't really much to celebrate on Europe Day. The EU hasn't moved an inch closer to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world, despite the establishment of the EEAS and the continuous decline of the US as a superpower.

The democratic uprisings in the MENA region left Europe, including Turkey, divided, driven, uninspired, even uninterested. While France pushed for a swift European response in Libya, Germany successfully embarrassed itself in front of the UN Security Council. They later subduedly committed more Awacs to Afghanistan to make up for it. In the end, the US took the baton from the squabbling Europeans and did the lion share of the job themselves. Even as the MENA uprisings touch home in form of North African migrants, the EU finds itself unable to pursue a common migration strategy. It prefers compromising the Schengen system and letting member states have it their own way.

Talking about the US, did anybody say the US would drop in European esteem after the release of thousands of diplomatic cables last year? It appears the EU doesn't even know how many European bank account details the US accesses on a daily basis, a right the European institutions willingly granted them. And European politicians were fastest to congratulate Barack Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden, but when people started criticizing their attitude, they quickly highlighted that they lacked reliable information about how Osama really died.

No, the EU has definitely not become a stronger voice in the world. Even in the area where we have been most progressive so far, green energy, the EU allows itself to be surpassed. Despite all studies calling for a 30% emission reduction target by 2020, the EU prefers business-as-usual. China and Indonesia are showing the way to clean energy in an impressive manner. Yet, on a more positive note it seems that Spain and Germany have understood the importance of renewable energy and are committing more investment to the sector. 

While many things in external policy are far from perfect, there are also successes. The bright light in the obscure forest is Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who has established the EU as a powerful donor of humanitarian aid in Haiti, Ivory Coast and Libya.

With regard to internal EU affairs, the picture looks a little brighter as well. The Belgian and Hungarian presidencies have been running ambitious agendas with a focus on sustainable development, Trans-European Networks and a stable European economy. It is to be hoped that the Polish presidency will follow in this line.

Yet, as we are heading into the new year, Euroscepticism is on the rise in Finland and France among others, European democracy hasn't improved much (where is the ECI?) and we are no step closer to a single-seat parliament than a year ago. Europe is entering into a year with a lot of things on the agenda. I hope it will be less disappointing than the last year has been.

Happy Birthday Europe, and a good start into the new year. You will need it