Germany's love-hate relationship with Google Street View

Thousands of Germans have reportedly requested their homes be removed from Google Street View. Millions more, however, are already avidly using the program.

By , Staff writer

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    In this July 13 photo, a Google worker rides a bike at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Google is preparing to launch its Street View interactive mapping program in November for the European nation's 20 biggest cities.
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Allow Google to take a picture of your house. Or prepare to be wiped off the face of the map, indefinitely.

That's the option the California company is presenting to Germans as it prepares to launch its Street View interactive mapping program in November for the European nation's 20 biggest cities.

After years of wrangling between the search engine giant and the German government over privacy concerns, Google is allowing Germans to opt out of Street View by requesting that their home or property be "blurred" on the map. The blurring process corrupts raw data, meaning that a home cannot be un-blurred until next time one of Google's camera-equipped vehicles rolls around town.

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"Once a person in Germany requests that their home be blurred, it is blurred permanently, even if a request is made to un-blur it. There are currently no plans to refresh the imagery," says Google spokesperson Kate Hurowitz.

Germany's 'unconscious fear'

To be sure, citizens of all 23 countries where Street View is available can at any time have their homes blurred, but Germany has been the map's most vocal opponent. Only Germans have been given the option to opt out of Street View before it appears online, and only German homes are permanently blurred.

"Germany has a long tradition of protecting privacy and personality rights (especially due to the very bad surveillance practices of the Nazi régime)," says Thomas Hoeren, a law professor at the University of Muenster's Institute for Information in Germany. "Therefore, the country has one of most restrictive data protection acts in the world. And of course these regulations have to be applied to Google and the collection of personal data by Google."

"But there is a deeper problem," he wrote by e-mail. "In Germany, there is an unconscious fear, a kind of transference regarding Google: Google is big, it is becoming bigger and bigger, it is intransparent."

Good snoopers don't want to be snooped on

According to Der Spiegel, at least 10,000 Germans have requested their homes be blurred on Street View since May 2009. Meanwhile, Google says that several hundred thousand Germans already use Street View every week, making Germany the program's biggest user of any country that isn't yet mapped. “Millions of Germans have already used Street View to explore other countries,” says Ms. Hurowitz.

Germans, it seems, want to see your home on Street View, but they don't want you seeing theirs. To put it another way, they want to be the snoopers and not the snoop-ies.

"People always want to see what they can see," says Professor Hoeren. "That has nothing to do with any 'German' mentality. But of course, all these persons would never allow others to intrude their privacy."

The deadline for Germans to request their home be blurred is Sept. 15, but removal requests will continue to be accepted and implemented after the maps go online in November. If even one apartment tenant requests removal, then the entire apartment building is blurred. Google has not yet tallied the number of requests for removal, according to Hurowitz, “but proportionate to the overall population of Germany it’s quite low.”

“It’s worth noting however that we’ve also received a number of letters from people [in Germany] asking to opt back in after they tried out Street View,” she adds. “Our hope is that once people know more and try it out for themselves they will understand how useful it is – for their local businesses, themselves, and for tourists visiting Germany.”

Despite the long-standing opt-out option, a number of German newspapers and officials cried foul this week after the California-based company said in statement on its German website Tuesday that by the end of 2010 it would add Germany's 20 largest cities to Street View.

Is Google missing an opportunity to restore trust?

“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,” wrote the newspaper Berliner Zeitung, according to a media round-up in Der Spiegel.

Johannes Caspar, head of the Hamburg office for data protection, said Google's choice to make a statement Tuesday failed to consider that most Germans would be on vacation and unable to respond. "Google is missing an opportunity to restore trust," he said.

German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner said she would “watch very closely," although she didn’t raise the specter of legal action against Google as she had earlier this year. In the past, she has called Street View “a millionfold violation of privacy rights.”

Some German newspapers struck a more Google-friendly tone. "Street View is the map of the future,” wrote newspaper Die Welt. “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."

Tony Blair blurred his house

In the 23 countries where Street View is operating, including the United States, citizens are allowed to request their homes or properties be blurred on Street View. Tony Blair, for one, requested his residence removed. Some Americans, for example, have opted out of Street View for marketing reasons.

“I just want this image off there, so not to deter any potential buyers!” said one homeowner on a chat forum. “I spent enough money on upgrading the house, this clearly undermines all my efforts!” Many other times, Street View has proved beneficial to home buyers and sellers.

Street View's opt-out option, says Paul Schwartz of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology in California, highlights how Web users can snoop without being snooped on.

“The Golden Rule is not enforced or enforceable,” he says. “Google is not saying that since you’ve opted out, you can’t use [Street View] forever more. It allows people to become free riders.”

German privacy law is more nuanced from American privacy law, continues Professor Schwartz. In the United States, what happens in the public is not private. Such is not the necessarily case in Germany, he says, pointing to the 2004 case "von Hannover v Germany" in the European Court of Human Rights. It ruled that photos of Princess Caroline of Hanover, the daughter of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco, were private even though she was a public figure in a public place.

Professor Hoeren of University of Muenster says Google must pay better attention to European law, and its emphasis on privacy.

"A US company like Google is to a certain degree not capable to understand the importance of data protection as a cultural value in Europe. And as US companies have a tendency to think that US laws are applicable throughout the world they forget the European approach even in their European business activities."

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