Taking on the Internet Giants: Germany Applies Brakes to Google & Co.

The German government has discovered the Internet and data privacy as a political issue. The new debate over who should control the online world reveals a clash of two cultures, with the American ideal of freedom contrasting with the European desire for privacy. By SPIEGEL staff.

Photo Gallery: Germany's Digital Divide Photos
REUTERS

Sometimes it's a good thing to have at least one real enemy, particularly when you already have no friends. No one knows this better than Ilse Aigner.

For the last year and a half, Aigner, who is from Upper Bavaria and is a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, has been Germany's minister of food, agriculture and consumer protection -- in that order. Aigner spends much of her time inaugurating trade shows and agricultural fairs, being photographed with cute farm animals and expressing her outrage over rotten meat, genetically engineered corn and imitation cheese. She hasn't made much of an impression.

Until now, that is. She recently took on a truly serious issue: the Internet and data privacy. And suddenly the minister finds herself facing more powerful foes than dodgy butchers: online giants like Amazon, Facebook and, above all, Google.

Soon the US search engine company plans to send cars equipped with cameras out onto Germany's roads once again, to photograph every house and every block and create three-dimensional maps for the company's Street View project. Aigner is now insisting that Google should ask permission before violating the privacy of German citizens. Most of all, the minister's attacks reveal just how divided the German government is when it comes to the online world.

Fixing a Broken Relationship

In the power struggle over who has the say over digital issues, the cabinet in Berlin seems to be firing off broadsides somewhat at random. On Tuesday of last week, Germany's Constitutional Court ruled that a law requiring telecommunications companies to retain data from telephone, email and Internet traffic is unconstitutional. The law was introduced by former Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), as implementation of an EU guideline. Ironically, the critics of data retention included her successor, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberg, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière had earlier invited Web activists, bloggers and experts to his ministry for a three-hour exchange of views. "The relationship between the government and Internet users is impaired, and I intend to fix it," he promised.

And while Aigner was attacking Street View, the chancellor appeared to give Google Street View her blessing in her weekly video address. Merkel said that citizens who didn't want to be photographed by Google could opt out by simply submitting a form letter, the template for which could be found on the Consumer Protection Ministry's Web site. Some people interpreted this as an attempt to muzzle Aigner, until the government's press office made it clear that Merkel's statement was a "communication glitch."

The week continued in much the same way. Then, on Thursday of last week, a commission of inquiry called "Internet and Digital Society" was launched. It will spend the next two years examining the interaction between people and digital media.

Fears of Terrorism

The government in Berlin isn't alone in its vacillation between old fears of terrorism and new consumer populism, and between the government's desire to exert control and the goal of individual freedom. In the recent debates, different cultures and points of view collided for the first time.

On the one side is the European desire for strict protection of individuals' rights, and on the other is the American ideal of extensive freedoms. Politicians and consumers are facing off against a phalanx of young, enormous corporations that are only interested in one ideology, namely growth.

There is, at least, one kernel of hope. "The long overdue discussion of data privacy is now finally getting underway," says former German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, a legal expert and civil rights activist who is a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party.

German politicians, says Baum, have "completely missed the boat" on the issue. For this reason, and because the adversaries are globally active corporations, Baum believes that the debate must be elevated to a new level. "The European Parliament needs to get involved now," he says. "A European data privacy debate finally has to get underway."

Different Definitions of Freedom

The debate revolves around questions of national security and individual self-determination on the Internet. But it also concerns the power of the large and still-growing online giants, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and MySpace, as well as the question of what these companies are doing with the records of our everyday data, and how they will be able to obtain information from us, influence us or perhaps even control us in the future.

When it comes to freedom, Americans and Europeans bring completely different ideals and definitions to the table. While Americans want to liberate consumers, Europeans seek to protect them.

Until a few years, issues like data privacy and Internet policy were so unattractive in Germany that only backbenchers paid any attention to them. But now that they have become popular, no politician wants to be left out. Everyone is intent on regulating the future, and yet no one knows exactly what it will look like, or how it can be legally structured on the international level.

This lack of certainty has Berlin in an uproar. At first, Aigner pressed ahead with her broad attack against Google, Facebook and their peers. Then de Maizière upped the ante when he said that every company should be required to publish an annual summary of all the data it has stored. Even an Internet newbie knows that this would involve enormous volumes of data.

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1. Unscrew the locks! Take the doors themselves from their jambs!
plotinus 03/11/2010
I think there are only two alternatives to avoid slavery. Either create very strict laws protecting privacy, OR videotape every human being on earth, non-stop, 24 hours a day, from birth to death, with absolutely everything they do or say or write universally open to everybody on Earth, --- *INCLUDING* spying on every single rich or powerful person on the planet, and on their minions! Personally, I prefer the second alternative! [IMG]http://i48.photobucket.com/albums/f228/ca_rickf/Smilies/icon_evil.gif[/IMG] .
2. Germany taking on Google Street View
kenny1948 03/16/2010
I guess I don't understand the Germans as well as I believed. As an American, I cannot understand what all the fuss is about. "Street View" allows people to virtually view a city or town. You can walk down a street and see it as it looks if you were visiting. In this way, one is able to be a " virtual tourist ". Are the Germans somehow afraid that people will be able to see their cities, before actually visiting? Are they somehow embarassed by what people might see? This to me is some kind of throwback to the days of the Nazis. As in there is something to hide here! What is the big deal? Anyone can google my address, and see where I live. I personally furnished the photo! It is not as if Google were invading your personal space. They do not look inside your windows. No faces are shown, and no personal information such as license plates are shown. I cannot understand what is so secret, that it needs to be hidden from the world. Personal Data, is one thing. The facade of a building, is another thing altogether. I guess the Germans do not want postcards being sent either! Or tourists taking pictures.
3.
BTraven 03/19/2010
---Quote (Originally by kenny1948)--- I guess I don't understand the Germans as well as I believed. As an American, I cannot understand what all the fuss is about. "Street View" allows people to virtually view a city or town. You can walk down a street and see it as it looks if you were visiting. In this way, one is able to be a " virtual tourist ". Are the Germans somehow afraid that people will be able to see their cities, before actually visiting? Are they somehow embarassed by what people might see? This to me is some kind of throwback to the days of the Nazis. As in there is something to hide here! What is the big deal? Anyone can google my address, and see where I live. I personally furnished the photo! It is not as if Google were invading your personal space. They do not look inside your windows. No faces are shown, and no personal information such as license plates are shown. I cannot understand what is so secret, that it needs to be hidden from the world. Personal Data, is one thing. The facade of a building, is another thing altogether. I guess the Germans do not want postcards being sent either! Or tourists taking pictures. ---End Quote--- I think they fear the run of thousands of burglars who all have used Google Street View to find out where it is lucrative to commit burglary. And the richer they are the more they do not want to see their mansions and houses on the net. It is a pity that the world becomes more and more a village, and which devices like the one Google promotes I assume even more people will be animated to make useless journeys
4. I also do not understand the problem with street view.
mortenlund 03/23/2010
It is a nice technology. And it is impressive that an American firm can acomplish this task here on European soil, long before any domestic compagny have the strengt - or know-how and succes. Europe should consider taking up the challenge, and compete instead of taking freedom away. Freedom is a clear winner.
5. s
mae 03/25/2010
---Quote (Originally by kenny1948)--- I guess I don't understand the Germans as well as I believed. As an American, I cannot understand what all the fuss is about. "Street View" allows people to virtually view a city or town. You can walk down a street and see it as it looks if you were visiting. In this way, one is able to be a " virtual tourist ". Are the Germans somehow afraid that people will be able to see their cities, before actually visiting? Are they somehow embarassed by what people might see? This to me is some kind of throwback to the days of the Nazis. As in there is something to hide here! What is the big deal? Anyone can google my address, and see where I live. I personally furnished the photo! It is not as if Google were invading your personal space. They do not look inside your windows. No faces are shown, and no personal information such as license plates are shown. I cannot understand what is so secret, that it needs to be hidden from the world. Personal Data, is one thing. The facade of a building, is another thing altogether. I guess the Germans do not want postcards being sent either! Or tourists taking pictures. ---End Quote--- 2 reasons 1)People in the old World are ususally very suspicious of strangers and suspect the worst of people so they project that mentality onto Google. 2)They also reflexively project their very recent fascist history onto Americans without realising that the USA was never infected with the fascist ideology which swept Europe and which still has strong roots in in its birthplace. Le Pen's party made some impressive gains in the recent French elections. So, naturally they project Europe's strong tradition of fascist tendencies onto Americans. This is also a reflections of their ignorance of American history. How silly all this paranoia and fuss about Google is illustrated by the fact that, London after all has cameras in almost every street and it hasn't turned into an Orwellian nightmare yet. But on the other hand, Germans have no problem with the Goverment poking its nose into personal religious beliefs as in the case of the church tax or reporting themsevles to the authorities when they move to a new town and revealing their personal whereabouts to the government but heaven forbid that someone should see a street on the Net.
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