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.

Photo Gallery: Street View Smarts Photos
dpa

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.

That's why Schneider, who is the budgetary spokesmen of the center-left Social Democrats' parliamentary group, wants to have his house blanked out when Google unveils the panoramic photos it has taken as part of its new Street View service in Germany.

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.

Pixelated Out

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 Maizičre'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'

This prompted a whole host of questions from the assembled press corps: Would individual citizens be able to sue over failure to comply with their request? "I can't speculate on that at the present time," the Interior Ministry spokesman replied.

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.

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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 isnīt. 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 canīt see the need to be concerned...the images are fuzzy enough, and Iīm 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
Zitat von kim@wordwise.deI 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
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
Zitat von 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?
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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