Steamrolled by Google Street View: Internet Challenges Overwhelm German Government

Part 2: Vague Fears and Lack of Understanding

Photo Gallery: Street View Smarts Photos
dpa

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.

Ineffective Bombast

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."

Typically Vague

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

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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1. Paranoia
kim@wordwise.de 08/17/2010
I do not understand what all the fuss is about in Germany with Google StreetView. When I book a hotel somewhere I don't know, it is great to have a look what the street's like. What can any criminal do with an old photo of a house that he loads onto a computer? Paint virtual graffiti on it, so what? He could always get on his bike and go and have a look down what must be a public street. The days when people thought taking a photo was stealing part of your soul are surely fading? What is the real risk? Englishman in Berlin
2.
deanimator 08/17/2010
The fuss being made is understandable on the one hand, but on the other it isn´t. Firstly Germans are often a bit too paranoid...their history provides enough reasons to worry about what others know about them. However, they are often so intensely curious about what others are up to that one could expect them to welcome the chance to peek! Personally, I can´t see the need to be concerned...the images are fuzzy enough, and I´m not doing anything that would interest anyone anyway. And if I was...who cares? Now, if I was doing anything illegal...then I would worry...! If we have to stop the phenomenon, i.e. the internet, then rather obviously there would be no internet.
3. Steamrollered by Google street view
Jessp 08/18/2010
"should the entire world know, thanks to Google Street View, what kind of curtains you have in your living-room windows or whether you have garden gnomes in front of your house?" Well, I can get that information simply by walking past your house. Or do you wish to prevent me from doing that?
4.
BTraven 08/19/2010
---Quote (Originally by kim@wordwise.de)--- I do not understand what all the fuss is about in Germany with Google StreetView. When I book a hotel somewhere I don't know, it is great to have a look what the street's like. What can any criminal do with an old photo of a house that he loads onto a computer? Paint virtual graffiti on it, so what? He could always get on his bike and go and have a look down what must be a public street. The days when people thought taking a photo was stealing part of your soul are surely fading? What is the real risk? Englishman in Berlin ---End Quote--- Do you think that is a service the world really needs? I do not mind that people who know where I live could get an impression how it looks there but I ask myself why Google is doing it because they do not earn any money with it. I do not believe that they want to create that kind of transparent person feared by those whose job it is to protect people from any misuse of their personal data which they have delivered to companies in order to do business with them. They only reason I think why they do it is that they want to underpin its position as absolute world leaders as source for information of every kind. Google has the search monopoly, and there is no company which could get some of its market share, let alone an enterprise which could dispute its dominance. The strange thing is that is the first time that a company has managed to be unchallenged in its business field. It has never happened before. And that in a technology where you do not need much money, just the knowledge of persons who work for you. I think it is quite disturbing.
5.
BTraven 08/19/2010
---Quote (Originally by Jessp)--- "should the entire world know, thanks to Google Street View, what kind of curtains you have in your living-room windows or whether you have garden gnomes in front of your house?" Well, I can get that information simply by walking past your house. Or do you wish to prevent me from doing that? ---End Quote--- The question is whether the entire world wants to know what kind of curtains you have. I doubt it. Be happy when you girl friend who lives 5000 km away wants to control if you had washed it.
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