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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.

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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.

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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."