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Sideswiped by Street View? Politicians Surprised by Google Move

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Google has said it will start accepting requests from German consumers next week to blur out their homes as it moves to launch its controversial Street View service later this year. The announcement came in the midst of summer holidays, when many politicians and residents are out of the country. The action has angered data privacy officials.

Google says that Germans are already using its Street View service to plan vacations in cities like Paris, which are already included on the site. Zoom
dpa

Google says that Germans are already using its Street View service to plan vacations in cities like Paris, which are already included on the site.

Internet giant Google surprised many politicians in Germany by announcing on Tuesday that it intends to introduce its controversial Street View service with 360-degree photo maps of 20 of the country's largest cities -- from Munich to Hamburg -- by the end of the year.

Notably, the company chose August to make the announcement and to launch a website where private residents are being given one month to submit requests to have images of their homes or businesses blurred out. It's a month when Germany's politicians and the residents of about half of the country's states are away on vacation. The move caught the two government agencies responsible for digital age hot-button issues like online privacy and data protection by surprise, and politicians were quick to respond to the snap announcement.

Street View, which is part of the Google Maps web site and has already launched in 23 countries, is highly controversial in Germany because government officials fear the 360-degree, high-resolution photographs of people's homes, yards and gardens will encroach on their privacy. Politicians have demanded that the company give consumers the option of having their homes blurred to the point of non-recognition and that the raw data not be archived on Google's servers once it has been processed.

Special Site for Privacy Requests

When it announced the project launch on Monday evening, the company said it took privacy concerns seriously and would next week launch a special website residents could use to request that their homes or businesses be made anonymous.

"In the 20 cities that have been named, renters and owners have four weeks to request the anonymization of their homes in Street View with the new function," Google said in a statement. "Afterwards, the online function will be closed in order to give Google sufficient time to process the requests. Requests for areas outside the first 20 cities can still be submitted after the deadline." The company said it would also process requests it had already received.

The company believes that the process will help to halt resistance that has been growing for months in Germany to a company that is accustomed to success. The company has also said that there is massive interest in the project in Germany. "Many German users are already using Street View to visit other European countries virtually," Google product manager Raphael Leiteritz said.

An Uphill Battle

Google has been working for months to make Germany the 24th country featured in Street View, but it has been an uphill battle. At least 10,000 Germans have sent letters to the government and the company addressing their privacy concerns about Street View. Many, it seems, just don't want pictures of their homes popping up on the Internet for everyone to see. Both German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger and Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner have been critical of the project, with continuous calls for the company to improve its privacy policies within the scope of the project.

There are other concerns, too. Domestic policy experts like Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and member of federal parliament, fear Street View will become a tool for thieves. "It may be a comfortable tool for those who want to buy a home," he said, "but it's unfortunately also one for people who want to break in."

Meanwhile, responding from her holidays, Aigner, who is a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU, said in a somewhat self-congratulatory tone: "My demand for a public discussion about the publication of information about homes and property in the Internet by Google has been effective." She welcomed the site set up by Google for residents to request their homes be blocked. "What's decisive for me though, is that all of those objections are addressed."

'Considerable Doubts'

In the port city of Hamburg, which is also a federal state and home to Google's Germany headquarters, politicians have been highly critical of Street View. The state's data protection and privacy commissioner, Johannes Caspar, criticized the company on Tuesday for introducing the special website for residents with privacy concerns right in the middle of the summer holidays.

He said it created "considerable doubts over whether Google was truly interested in a simple and community-friendly way of dealing with (resident's) objections." He told SPIEGEL ONLINE that "care should take precedence over speed." He also criticized Google for allegedly refusing to create a telephone hotline in order to answer residents' questions. Instead, the company has said it will provide relevant information in the coming weeks through the local and national media.

Caspar said he learned of Google's current plans last Thursday. He also claimed that the company had not taken the data protection office's concerns into consideration and that questions remain unanswered about how Google will handle the data it has captured or how it will be stored.

'Forced to Deal with This on Their Own'

In May, the state of Hamburg introduced draft legislation in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber which represents the interests of the states, that would establish stringent privacy and data protection requirements for Google and other providers of products like Street View. Currently, no legislation exists for dealing with next-generation Web products like the sophisticated mapping being done by Google. Despite critical public statements by Consumer Protection Minister Aigner and Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the German federal government has also been slow to address the issue and is still a long way from introducing any laws to deal with it.

"The result is that residents are forced to deal with this on their own," said Konstantin von Notz, the Internet issues policy spokesman for the Green Party in the German parliament. "Whether or not attention is paid to the complaints of residents is to be left up to Google," he said.

The message Google is sending back to its critics: Trust us. But the timing of news from South Korea regarding Street View wasn't great for the company. Investigators in Seoul searched Google offices on Tuesday and seized computers and hard drives, a police spokesman stated. The company is suspected of having illegally gathered personal data for Street View.

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