Employees at Google Germany apparently didn't take much summer vacation this year. On Tuesday, the company quietly announced that it would push ahead to launch its controversial Street View service in 20 German cities -- stretching from Munich to Hamburg -- by the end of the year.
In a concession to government concerns about privacy, the company has said it would open up a website next week that will allow concerned residents to request that their homes be blurred out from the images provided by the service. Street View includes high-resolution, 360-degree photographs that critics say could provide a glimpse into everyday life that can easily violate privacy. The company has said the requests site will be open for only one month, starting next week.
The surprise announcement caught German politicians off guard as they hiked in the Alps of Germany, Austria and Italy, far away from the capital in Berlin. Many see Google's announcement as a sneaky move designed to reduce the number of objections that are registered against Street View -- saving the company work and additional public embarrassment. After all, much of Germany is on vacation.
On the editorial pages on Wednesday, commentators appear to be as divided about Street View as many consumers seem to be. Some argue that Google has acted with great hubris in launching its so-called objections site in during the peak of the summer holidays. Others feel that German skepticism towards Street View will lead the country to miss the boat on one of the most important developments currently taking place online: the digital mapping of the world. The resulting map of Germany, they fear, will be an inaccurate one if tens of thousands of buildings are blurred or distorted.
In its own editorial, SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:
"It may well be that Google is seen as a data-collecting monster which earns massive amounts of money and is not gentle when going about its business. But that should not lead one to forget that a company should be allowed to carry on with its business as long as it doesn't violate anyone's rights. It may be an incursion on a person's right to privacy if individual and recognizable photos of them are published. But Google has ensured that people will not be identifiable (on its German service). With the exception of this issue, there is no obvious reason that this project should fall under the jurisdiction of (government) data protection officials."
"We are doing ourselves no favors if, in the future, we view our homes, cars and gardens as protected expressions of human dignity that are protected by the constitution. That not only makes a laughing stock of our data protection laws -- ones which we need in order to defend ourselves against people who, citing the American example, want to use the Internet to pillory sex offenders or demand that full-body scanners be installed at airports."
"No less laughable are the crime experts who have expressed their safety concerns about Street View. They worry that bands of thieves will spy on potential loot with Google's help. But no gangster will learn anything from Street View that that person can't get by going to the place and looking at it with his own eyes. Why not then also ban cars, since they can be used by bands of thieves to transport stolen goods?"
"Is this really the way we want to interpret privacy under the constitution? If it were to come to that, then Germany would truly be the data protection hell that many in the United States perceive it to be."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Google was only able to quiet data protection and privacy officials, politicians and critics with a struggle -- and by making major concessions. But Google is responsible itself for the massive skepticism. Early on, the information broker attracted negative attention to itself.... As it photographed the streets, the company also collected, for example, illegal wireless network data. ... And the company only showed itself willing to make compromises under public pressure."
"Google could have cooperated in its work on a German Street View version that would have had a good reputation. Instead the company is overpowering data protection officials with a period (for residents to register to have their homes blurred out) that is coming far too early and is much too short. Not to mention the fact that it is taking place during the summer holidays. The company also refuses to set up a hotline (to address questions from consumers). ... Google has missed an opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to adhere to German standards of privacy protection. By doing so, it has done more damage to its image than all of its critics taken together."
Berlin's Tagesspiegel writes:
"Private citizens have the right to file an objection against plans for public construction projects, even if that leads to years of delays for important infrastructure projects. With Street View, Google is currently building a digital world that has the potential to impact the lives of people for as long as the construction of a street would. Anyone who opposes the use of a photo of his or her home appearing on Street View can now object and Google will render that structure unrecognizable. But to set a limit of four weeks for those objections, starting in the middle of summer holidays, shows what little tact the company has -- especially after Google slipped up by 'inadvertently' collecting data from wireless networks. It just goes to show that Google is creating its own rules."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Google's endless street panoramas, with which one can explore the world with a pedestrian view, will go online in November, but only with the right of residents to oppose (their buildings being included). If a single renter objects to his apartment building being shown, then it must be made unrecognizable. That is risky, because the unlimited right to objection could result in a ban on photos of public spaces. In addition, Germany risks going down the path of having a distorted map of the country."
"The risk of a total ban exists because Street View is based on the modular design principle. Google's camera-equipped cars only take the first photos. Street View is then updated using photos provided by private citizens, and they can already upload and incorporate those photos today. So if a person bans an image of their home, in principle, all photos on that street would have to be banned."
"Street View is the map of the future. Those who distort it are the modern day equivalent of the unfortunate cities that tore down their city walls too late during the Middle Ages. Because of their fears of plunderers, they missed out on the future."