Unfortunately Street View is only the latest in a series of bumbling attempts by the German government to come to grips with data-hungry companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and eBay. And once again it appears to be overwhelmed by the task of finding a legislative framework for the Internet, not least because German society is deeply divided over the issue.
Many people, particularly older ones, have a vague fear that their data will be misused. Google and its ilk are currently the topic of hot debate in local newspapers, municipal councils and regional parliaments -- mostly among skeptics who simply feel uneasy about the issue.
The Web community, which mainly comprises younger people, can't understand what all the fuss is about. Most of them consider such services a positive boon, mainly because of their practical benefits. Many people already use online services like Google Earth and Google Maps in their everyday lives, for instance when planning a vacation. Thanks to the available satellite images, it takes just a few clicks to find out whether a hotel is really right by the sea or actually next to a sewage treatment plant.
Caught between the skepticism of the one camp and the euphoria of the other, Germany's politicians are struggling to find a position on the matter. But in so doing they are wasting valuable time when it comes to defining the boundaries that need to be set. So far, the government's input has been limited to appeals, announcements, assurances and calls for boycotts.
The powers-that-be have since realized how ineffective their bombast has been. When Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner told the world that she was closing her Facebook account, nobody cared. The world's largest social network has about 10 million members in Germany -- and those numbers are constantly increasing, not falling.
Aigner is now calling on all consumers to file objections to their houses being shown on Street View. "Every single request must be accepted, no matter whether it is sent by post or e-mail," she demanded. "Until this is agreed to, the Street View service must not be allowed to go online in Germany." The ministry expects the total number of opt-out requests that Google has already received, or will receive, to be significantly more than 200,000. So far, Google has not revealed how many requests it has received.
Aigner has also criticized the four-week period for registering objections as being too short. "A doubling of the period to eight weeks would be desirable," she told the Tuesday edition of the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt. She also called for more transparency on Google's part. "The whole objection process must be made more transparent," she said. "That's the only way that Google can win back the trust it has lost."
Passing the Buck
No other member of the German cabinet has taken as determined a stand as Ilse Aigner -- at least rhetorically speaking. And yet the problem lies not only in the opponents' strength, but the fact that Aigner doesn't have the final say on such matters.
At least four federal ministries in Berlin are responsible for Internet-related policy in one way or another. And now every departmental chief is shaking his or her head and passing the buck. Aigner says she has repeatedly urged the relevant ministers to draw up proposals for how to tackle the issue, but she has yet to hear anything from the Justice and Interior Ministries.
Back in January, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said that much "could be improved" and that Internet companies were "duty-bound" to increase transparency. With regard to Google in particular, she said that its services were "in urgent need of legal appraisal." Unfortunately the findings of her appraisal are not known.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who is technically the government's top official on data protection issues, also refused to be pinned down too quickly. "People want to use Internet services like Google Earth and Google Street View without being affected by the associated consequences," he said. "That simply doesn't work."
But public pressure on the minister has grown. In early July, the Bundesrat, Germany's second chamber of parliament which represents the federal states, passed a bill to change the Data Protection Act in order to better protect personal rights online. Now de Maizière wants to amend the Data Protection Act too. "But this won't become a specific 'Google law,'" he says.
Last week de Maizière e-mailed fellow ministers a cabinet proposal for a government position paper he hoped they could vote on this Wednesday and then pass on to the Bundesrat. The proposal, which is worded with typical vagueness, says that the German government "is currently considering all possible courses of action required to adapt the Data Protection Act to the Internet age in general as well as in particular data protection relating to geo-information." All references to concrete regulations are left in the subjunctive. Definitive it is not.
De Maizière says he wants the debate to be carried out in a "more sober" way. "We shouldn't promise our citizens more than we can give them."
To all intents and purposes, it sounds as if the politicians have already thrown in the towel.
PETRA BORNHÖFT, SEBASTIAN ERB, MARKUS FELDENKIRCHEN, KATHARINA FUHRIN