After three years of dispatching its iconic cars to photograph the streets of Germany's biggest cities, Google announced Tuesday that it is in the final stages before the launch of its Street View service in the country. When it goes live in the coming months, Street View services will initially be provided for 20 cities, allowing users to navigate them using 360-degree photos of homes, businesses and most other sites that can be found in Deutschland's Strassen und Gassen.
Google launched Street View in the United States in 2007, but it took years to bring the service to Germany because of privacy issues: Thousands of people didn't want pictures of their homes popping up on the Internet without their control. Reunified Germany is home to very strict laws about the protection of personal data, and sensitivities over the snooping and persecution perpetrated by the East German secret police, the Stasi, still persist two decades after reunification.
Germans Already Loyal Users
Despite considerable political opposition, Google workers continued to roam the country in specially equipped cars photographing city streets. There reason for trudging on was quite simple: demand.
Street View Germany's manager, Raphael Leiteritz, says that despite opposition to the service, Germans have already become loyal users. Of all of the countries that do not currently have Street View services, Germans represent the greatest number of users on the site. Leiteritz suspects they use the maps and photos for vacation planning and other activities. The service gets about 1 million page impressions a day from Germany.
That may also explain why Google is so insistent on bringing Street View to Germany. In areas where the company has made its navigable 360-degree maps available, the Street View service has increased traffic by 20 percent to the Google Maps service it is a part of. The company earns billions through advertising and it earns that money from the page views it generates.
Street View launched in many countries with little fuss, but in Germany criticism could be heard early on. Many wanted to know how they could have images of their homes and private property excluded from the service. And Google officials discussed the issue for months with local, state and national authorities.
Preserving the Right to Privacy
In a recent interview with SPIEGEL, German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner addressed the recent negotiations between her ministry and Google. "At the core of the talks between my ministry and Google was the need for people to be able to decide for themselves whether they want their personal environs to appear in photos on the Internet as well as what happens with their private data," she said. "Some may consider it small-minded or square, but there are still people who do not want to turn up on the Internet."
Aigner said she believes that photos of buildings and facades should be made publicly available. "But it makes a difference if these high-resolution, 360-degree photos of homes and gardens -- from which people can draw conclusions about a person's living environment -- can be called up at anytime on the Internet and marketed around the world."
Starting next Wednesday, the company has said the people can submit requests that pictures of their buildings be blurred out. Applicants must visit a special Google web page and submit their name and address. But being forced to proactively submit that information to Google is likely to irritate some.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Google's data protection official, Per Meyerdierks, said the move was unavoidable, however. He said the data was needed in order to find the corresponding buildings in the Street View database, but also in order to verify the veracity of the request. Residents who submit their requests are sent a letter by mail with a confirmation code that they must then enter into the special Google website in order to confirm that they actually live at the address they have submitted. The company believes this will help eliminate abuse or fraud.
A Tricky Process
There is nothing new about the method, and it is frequently used in order to confirm the identity of users of websites, but it won't eliminate every problem with the process. For example, the renter of an apartment can demand that the building be blurred out without the owner ever being informed. The process can also be tricky when a number of people live at a single address or in mixed residential and business zones. But the company has answers here, too. If, for example, a restaurant owner wants to make his establishment easy to find in Street View, but people residing in apartments above in the same building request that their homes be made anonymous, then the upper part of the building would be blurred with the lower part still showing.
When the service launches, the buildings that have been removed at the request of users will not disappear entirely. They will merely be blurred to the point that no individual details will be discernable and, thus, no privacy violated.
Once the website for submitting requests goes live, Google intends to give residents in Germany four weeks to either register their objections by mail or online. The deadline has been set in order to provide the company enough time to process the requests, to review them and make the necessary changes to the photographs before Street View goes live in Germany.
At Least 10,000 Objections
It appears that officials at Google are unclear about how long that process will take. The company has refused to provide a rough estimate of the number of requests it believes it will receive or to comment on the number of people who have already submitted them. After being asked repeatedly, a spokesman for the company said that German Consumer Protection Minister Aigner was at least heading in the right direction with her recent statement that the number of people who had submitted requests to Google was in the five-figure region, meaning at least 10,000. The company has not stated an official launch date for Street View Germany, but several newspapers are reporting that it is tentatively planned for November.
One can only speculate how many apartment and building owners will register their objections in the coming weeks. Google itself will be using that time to seek to convince Germans of the utility of Street View while at the same time informing people of their right to submit a request to blur out their property. In an unusual step for an online firm, Google plans to launch a major advertising campaign in Germany's newspapers and magazines. Google officials are hoping that, in the end, the majority of Germans will accept the service.
It is also hoping that only a fraction of Germans will reject the presence of their homes in Street View. Because the company has placed the burden for protecting their privacy on the users, there is a good chance the hope will become a reality.