Setting Hurdles for Google and Others: 'Germans Like to Look, But Not to Be Looked At'

By Petra Bornhöft and

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is responding to pressure against Internet giant Google over its controversial Street View service. A summit is being planned for September between politicians and Internet companies. But critics ask why the government is now scrambling to address the issue when it has known of Google's plans for at least two years.

A screenshot of the Google website that allows residents of Germany to request that their homes or apartments be blurred out on its Street View service when it launches. Zoom
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A screenshot of the Google website that allows residents of Germany to request that their homes or apartments be blurred out on its Street View service when it launches.

High-level German politicians seem to love holding summit meetings -- the more pressing the issue, the greater the priority it will get. This week, the issue is Google and the Street View service it plans to launch in the country before the end of the year. By now, it is no secret that Street View has been a lightning rod for criticism in Germany.

The country's interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, said Tuesday he would convene a summit meeting, titled the "Digitalization of Town and Country," on Sept. 20. He wants to invite all participants to the negotiating table: government ministers, consumer, data and privacy protection officials as well as the companies in question -- including, above all, Google.

The surprise, mid-summer-holiday announcement by the California-based company that it would go live soon with its 360-degree street panorama service, has forced Chancellor Angela Merkel's government this week to go on the defensive and take up an issue that it has largely pushed to the side up until now. The government's remiss has triggered a forceful reaction. And this time, the issue isn't just Google, but also competitors like Microsoft who are planning services that are similar to Street View.

Originally, de Maizière, who is a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, didn't want to take up the issue of geographically based Internet services, despite frequent criticism of Google by several of his colleagues in the government, led by Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner and Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.

In an interview published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Tuesday, Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called on de Maizière to quickly reform the country's data protection law. "The current right to data protection needs to finally be adapted for the digital world," she said.

Meanwhile, Germany's federal commissioner for data protection, Peter Schaar, is calling for greater protection of private data on the Internet. On Wednesday, he called for a federal register to be created to assist people who do not want their personal data published on the Web and for a explicit ban on the creation of profiles of individuals based on that data. "A person's right to object (to their data being available online) cannot be dependent on the goodwill of the individual companies," he said. "The linking of personal data should only be allowed if those affected agree to it or if it is expressly stipulated by law."

An Uproar Across the Country

When Google announced last week that it planned to launch Street View services for 20 German cities by the end of the year, the uproar across the country quickly grew. On Friday, the Interior Ministry said that draft legislation on the government's role in regulating the Internet would first be presented in the fall, and that, at some point during the current government's term in office, Germany's privacy and data protection laws would also be updated to meet the needs of the information age. It was a typically chronic case of policy procrastination by the current government, which is comprised of Merkel's conservatives and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).

And with growing public pressure, Merkel has also signalled that she would like her ministers to take greater steps to address the issue. De Maizière has now said that he would like to consider new regulations for dealing with geodata sooner -- not just Google Street View, but all similar services. That will be the primary focus of the summit planned for Sept. 20, and it is said that Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, one of Germany's most outspoken critics of Street View, has agreed to the meeting.

But exactly what the government envisions in these new regulations is an open question. Does the government have real plans or is it just trying to create the impression that it is actually doing something?

Fears of Unintended Collateral Damage

Things might be easier for the coalition government if they used an initiative by the city-state of Hamburg, which has sought to impose restrictions on Google's efforts to photograph roads, buildings, offices, public spaces and private homes, as a basis for its discussions. With a 30-page draft law, Hamburg is seeking to pass new regulations in the Bundesrat, the federal legislative body that represents the interests of the states.

But de Maizière and his colleagues in Merkel's cabinet feel those rules would go too far, and he has so far rejected the Hamburg initiative. They have criticized it as being little more than a "Google Law." But Hamburg's commissioner for data protection, Johannes Caspar, who is responsible for regulatory issues concerning Google because it has its German headquarters in the city-state, views the situation differently. He believes his state's initiative in the Bundesrat provides a sufficient legal basis for regulating geodata systems.

But de Maizière disagrees. He warns that regulations that are too strong could lead to "unintended collateral damage in what would otherwise be the normal use of images of public spaces." The interior minister has warned that an overly strict regulation could also possibly limit press freedom in the country. "The Germans like to look, but they don't like to be looked at. That's not on."

It's now de Maizière's task to ensure that this German contradiction is resolved. The interior minister said the issue was not about the photographing of the facades of homes, but about much greater questions: Will the privacy rights of residents through the photographing of public spaces and publication of data -- for example in flood areas, from events like the Love Parade or street processions that take place during Germany's Carnival season -- be violated?

Government 'Asleep at the Wheel'

In truth, it's Germany's hopelessly outdated data protection laws that need to be given a complete overhaul. But experts say that would require a mammoth undertaking, and de Maizière views the situation similarly.

The fact is: Google's camera-equipped Street View cars have already been traversing Germany for the past two years. The federal government has had plenty of time to carefully consider the issue. De Maizière may only have been in office as interior minister since last fall, but his attempts to justify the lack of action still fall short. "I would have liked to have had two years' time (to develop) regulations, but I do not have that now."

"They were caught asleep at the wheel," fulminates Lars Klingbeil, the policy expert for Internet issues in the parliamentary group of the center-left, opposition Social Democrats. Nevertheless, he welcomed de Maizière's announcement that he would seek to draft regulations that would lay down principles for dealing with the issue. "What we don't need right now are knee-jerk laws, introduced just for the sake of being seen to do something," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. A handful of politicians in the parliamentary groups of both the Christian Democrats and the FDP have called in recent days for a law to be swiftly passed regulating such geographical services.

For the time being, the only avenue available for critics to challenge Google is to take advantage of the company's website that allows them to request that their own homes and apartment buildings be blurred out before Street View launches. The company has given residents of the 20 cities that will be included at launch four weeks to submit their requests, a process that began on Tuesday.

However, the company already had to concede on Tuesday that it was experiencing technical problems with the page -- the site wasn't operating stably until the afternoon. Earlier this week, the German government estimated that more than 200,000 residents might ask Google to blur out their places of residence.

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