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Street View

November 18, 2010

Following much controversy, highly detailed street-level photographs are now available in Berlin, Cologne, Hannover and beyond. But Google remains under investigation for potential Street View privacy violations.

A camera from Google's Street View in Germany and the company's logo
Google navigated a web of privacy concerns in Germany to publish its photosImage: picture alliance/dpa

On Thursday, Google finally launched Street View in 20 cities around Germany at an event held in Hamburg.

The highly-anticipated online mapping service, which provides detailed street-level photographs of cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt, has been met with significant levels of public and private concern across the country over the last two-and-a-half years.

"New technologies always open up new opportunities and new questions," said Phillipp Schindler, vice president of North and Central Europe for Google, in a statement.

"In this context, our long journey of preparation and hard work is behind us, which included many meetings. But I am pleased that our users, as of today, can try out the Street View feature for Germany's biggest cities themselves."

A southern German town opens its arms to Google

Earlier this month, Google launched Street View first in the Bavarian town of Oberstaufen, which famously welcomed Google with open arms, and even went as far as to bake the company a cake to show their appreciation for an anticipated boost in tourism. The company also included Street View photographs of various German soccer stadiums and a few other public spaces and points of interest around the country.

Google representatives were quick to highlight the case of Oberstaufen, which has been Google's biggest cheerleader on a municipal level in Germany. Even the hall where the event was held was lined with blown-up Street View photos from Oberstaufen, whose mayor was also in attendance.

Bianca Keybach
Oberstaufen welcomed the Street View service, said tourism official Bianca KeybachImage: Oberstaufen Tourismus

"[Since Street View began,] we got hundreds of calls, e-mails and messages from people that didn't know Oberstaufen before, found it on Street View and are now planning a holiday in the next few months," said Bianca Keybach, the head of the Oberstaufen tourist office, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Photos began in 2008

But things have not always gone so smoothly for Google, particularly since June 2008, when the company began dialogue with the data protection authority in the German city-state of Hamburg. Google Germany's offices are based in the city, and the company began deploying its cars in August 2008. By comparison, Schindler added that such discussions with French data protection authorities took just a week.

However, earlier this year, public pressure increased, particularly from Ilse Aigner, the minister for consumer affairs, and Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister, who both publicly stated that they would do everything that they could to stop Google.

Many in Germany have had a visceral reaction against the Silicon Valley giant, in a country that famously guards its privacy in the aftermath of abuses by the Third Reich and the Stasi, the East German secret police. The country has not held a census since reunification over privacy concerns.

A bicycle carrying a Google Street View camera
Street View captures didn't just come from cars - bikes and even snowmobiles were usedImage: Cyrus Farivar

Privacy remains a cultural issue

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, told Deutsche Welle after the launch event that his company does understand that, culturally, privacy means something different in Germany than it does in Google's home country of the United States.

"What's interesting is to see how these different cultural understandings get translated in the context of a new service," he said. "Everything about Street View - there was almost no public debate about it neighboring countries like Denmark or the Netherlands - it's not just the US. So even within Europe, there are dramatic cultural differences."

The basic tenant of German privacy law is that one must opt-in to explicitly allow any type of data collection – Google seemingly has managed to avoid legal action against Street View until now.

However, after consultation with German privacy officials over the summer, Google relented and allowed German residents an eight-week opt-out period that ended on October 15. By filling out an online form, residents could request that Google have their houses blurred from view. German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously said that she would not remove her house from Street View.

Google took this unprecedented step as a way to comply with German privacy law and has publicly said previously that it had no plans to include this opt-out feature in future rollouts of the service in other countries. The company announced earlier this month that 244,000 German residents in the 20 cities had chosen to opt out of Street View - less than three percent of residents.

However, in Germany and everywhere else, the company also allows people to report abuse, or inaccuracies, or request that something be blurred using an online tool.

"Our job is to develop services that respect these cultural differences," Flesicher added. "We try to anticipate them. We're all internationally-minded people ourselves. We try to guess how people will react to them. But a lot of these services are new and have never been on the market before, so we learn and we adapt as we go along."

A car used in Google's Street View service captures images
Street level photographs for smaller German cities and towns is also on the wayImage: picture alliance/dpa

Street View expansion continues

The California company certainly will eventually expand the service to the rest of Germany. Over the last two years, it has already taken Street View photographs of nearly every city and village in the entire country. Google has also already sent Street View vehicles to other European countries, including Latvia and Estonia.

Germany represented a major hole in Street View coverage of western Europe, as it has already been available for many months and, in some cases, years, in the United Kingdom, France, and the Czech Republic.

Despite the Street View launch, German data protection authorities are continuing to pursue investigations against Google over the fact that the company inadvertently collected data, including email addresses and passwords while scanning over open WiFi networks.

The company has maintained that this data collection was a mistake and that it has changed its policies accordingly. Google also remains under investigation in many countries around the world, including Spain, Italy and Canada.

Author: Cyrus Farivar, Hamburg
Editor: Greg Wiser