The World from Berlin: 'The Internet Is Not a Lawless Place'

Germany on Wednesday unveiled plans to beef up Internet privacy after a public outcry over Google's Street View service. The new law would allow people to opt out from tracking services as well as ban services that combine data to create comprehensive profiles of individuals. German media on Thursday are critical of the plans, asking if they go far enough.

Post-Google Street View: The German government wants to pass new legislation that would create stronger privacy protection on the Internet. Zoom
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Post-Google Street View: The German government wants to pass new legislation that would create stronger privacy protection on the Internet.

A heated debate about Google Street View has filled newspaper columns and fuelled talk shows in Germany in recent months. Widespread outrage over the online service has resulted in draft legislation, unveiled on Wednesday, which seeks to improve privacy rights by making it illegal to collate some sorts of personal information.

The new law combines self-regulation by Google and other Internet companies with new rules. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière argued that the law is necessary, saying privacy rights were seriously violated when sites "publish data that has been aggregated with commercial interests in mind."

According to the draft, web services collating personal profiles would only be permitted if individuals being monitored gave their consent or if there was a strong case for making the information public.

"There are limits, and that limit is the protection of personal information and human dignity," de Maizière said, stressing that he did not want to create limits on online firms' business.

On the same day the law was unveiled, BITKOM, the German information-technology umbrella group, unveiled a proposal calling for greater industry self-regulation on privacy issues. The group's president, August-Wilhelm Scheer, formally presented a data protection code to de Maiziére in Berlin.

Blurred Homes

Among his measures was a service that would allow people to prevent having pictures of their homes published on Web map services, extending Google's opt-out rule to the other companies that offer similar services.

When Google launched street view in Germany last month, hundreds of thousands of residents opted to have their homes blurred out. In contrast to other countries, Street View also faced considerable resistance from politicians and privacy protection advocates.

On Thursday, media commentators analyze de Maiziére's draft law, but come to starkly different conclusions on whether it would do enough to protect Internet users.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The voluntary code, backed by the industry, is certainly not enough ... and the law which de Maizière suggested on Wednesday does go further. The minister wants to forbid a targeted dissemination of personal profiles because he thinks this oversteps a 'red line.' He now wants to discuss face-recognition services and tracking systems. After hesitating at first, de Maiziére is finally taking the issue of data protection seriously."

"And so he should. In 1983, the German Constitutional Court ruled that everyone should be able to see who knows what about them. At the time, the Internet wasn't even available for public access yet -- and it is unclear whether this ruling could possibly be upheld these days. But simply doing nothing and denouncing the complaints as hysteria, as de Maizière did initially, would not satisfy constitutional judges. A state should do whatever it can to protect the rights of its own citizens."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"De Maizière faces a difficult task. He has to bring together two conflicting issues: The first is the state's guarantee of protection for individuals; the second is the need not to put the brakes on flourishing online businesses."

"But controlling the internet has its boundaries. De Maiziére's rulings are national -- but the internet is global. In addition, the internet's structure develops so rapidly that a national legal framework cannot keep up. There is an impossible level of complexity."

"De Maiziére has cleverly moved out of this tricky spot. His draft law for 'protection for particularly big attacks on personal privacy rights' avoids a total revision of data protection. That is not capitulation -- but instead signals a mature understanding of the complexity of a public, which cannot be won over by pledges of a landmark new law."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"With his draft law, de Maizière has trained his eye on threats to personal rights: He wants to halt the spread of personal profiles. Alongside the commitment of the Internet sector, this is an important step into this massive realm. It won't be the last move in this direction either. De Maizière once again has opted not to create a law applying specifically to Google Street View. That would, certainly be an odd development in a state operating under the rule of law. After all, the minister does not want to hamper progress."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"De Maizière wants to bring the laws up to date with the digital age. It is good that he does not give in to populistic demands. However, his new recommendations do not solve the core problems of data abuse. Also, Wednesday's voluntary obligation for Internet association BITKOM is not very helpful. To the contrary."

"The Internet is not a lawless place. The rules to protect personal rights apply to the digital world just as they apply to the analogue world. Already, private information cannot be made public on the net against the wishes of those involved. Lots of aspects of the new draft law are already covered by existing laws -- and do not need to be repeated."

"An ideal data protection law would allow the user to access (externally created) personal profiles, as they do with Facebook and Google. People should also have the power to delete these profiles if they want to. On this point de Maiziére needs to follow his words with action."

Jess Smee

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