Steamrolled by Google Street View: Internet Challenges Overwhelm German Government
Google has been talking about introducing its Street View service in Germany for years. But now that the launch has officially been announced, the German government appears to have been taken by surprise. It's just another example of how the authorities are struggling to meet the challenges of the Internet age. By SPIEGEL Staff.
Maybe Carsten Schneider has curtains in the windows of his home in the eastern German city of Erfurt. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he lives in a Communist-era apartment block, maybe in a villa. If you ask him about it, Schneider gets extremely cagey. "That's nobody's business," he says. "Certainly not Google's." The way Schneider pronounces the company name, you'd think Google was a criminal organization.
Schneider may willingly grant insight into his private life on Facebook and Twitter, where he writes comments such as "Going for a run for an hour before it gets too hot," but the parliamentarian thinks Google Street View takes openness a step too far. "I want to keep part of my life private, just like anyone else," he says.
Schneider is one of a growing number of politicians, including Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who have announced their intention to have their apartments or houses made unrecognizable on the close-up Street View images, which Google's specially equipped cars have collected on major roads in 20 German cities. One of the first to opt out was Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, who very publicly cancelled her Facebook account a while back -- not that the gesture achieved much. Nor will Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière's plans to amend Germany's Data Protection Act provide a permanent solution to the problem.
The reactions by Germany's political elite may be defiant, even angry at times. But they are really only a testament to the politicians' own impotence. Both individual members of parliament and the relevant ministers are simply no match for the machinations of the Internet giants, who are producing a constant stream of new inventions and desires.
By the time politicians have completed their painstakingly slow debates and agreed new privacy protection measures, the online world has already come up with the next new idea. "I would never have predicted such a development," confesses Ulrich Kelber, the Social Democrats' deputy floor leader. "I completely underestimated the power of the media."
Kelber is like nearly all politicians in Germany. Because they didn't see it coming, they now appear to have been steamrollered by events. The battle between the Internet giants and the politicians could therefore become one of the defining conflicts of our age.
Time for Answers
The Internet is a great invention. It has revolutionized the way information is exchanged, brought geographically distant friends together, and enabled many people to work away from the office. But the Internet is also a nuisance because it constantly throws up new problems for its users and the politicians who want to protect their electorate. For instance, should everyone be able to read what individuals are doing in private (and with whom), simply because the social networking site Facebook fails to adequately inform its users about its privacy settings? By the same token, 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?
The Internet age may be presenting politicians with some rather strange questions, but they have implications for millions of people. And it's time the politicians came up with some answers.
A press conference in Berlin last Wednesday was a classic example of what happens when the German government is at a loss for words: Representatives of the various ministries sat on the podium, each apparently keen to outdo his or her colleagues in sheer cluelessness.
A few days earlier, Google had announced its intention to put images of German streets and individual facades online by the end of the year. It gave tenants and property owners who objected to having their house or building displayed on the Internet four weeks to opt out.
'I Can't Comment'
How could the government be sure that Google was processing all opt-out requests? "I can't comment on individual details," the Consumer Ministry spokeswoman replied. Could Google be forbidden from photographing governmental buildings and military installations? "I have absolutely no information about that," the government spokesman admitted.
Two years after Google began sending specially equipped camera cars around Germany, and fully half a year after its announcement that it would launch the service "sometime this year," the country's political leaders are acting as if they had never heard of the plans.
- Part 1: Internet Challenges Overwhelm German Government
- Part 2: Vague Fears and Lack of Understanding
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