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Google Controversy

July 12, 2010

Google's Street View cars are set to hit the road again in several countries this week, but not in Germany where their welcome remains lukewarm.

A screen shot of a building as found on the internet by Google
Googled: New laws would make the facade unrecognizableImage: picture alliance / dpa

Internet giant Google grounded its fleet of camera-equipped cars in May, after it transpired that they had inadvertently been gathering personal data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

Since then, the cars have been stripped of their wireless scanning technology, which Google says means they are now fit to restart Street View driving in Ireland, Norway, South Africa and Sweden. For the time being.

A car with a camera on top in city traffic
On the move in Germany, a Street View car before they were groundedImage: picture alliance/dpa

"We expect to add more countries in time," one of the company's vice presidents, Brian McClendon, said in a blog, adding that Google was aware that serious mistakes had been made in the past.

He said the cars, which have been cruising the world's streets taking photos for Google's online mapping service for the past few years, would no longer collect any Wi-Fi information at all.

McClendon insisted that they will now only collect photographs and 3D imagery, essential for Street View, which he considers invaluable for people looking for a hotel or restaurant or to check out a new home.

Not on German turf

But the snap-happy cars will remain conspicuously absent in Germany, which is famed for its particularly strict data protection laws, adopted after World War II in a bid to keep personal information out of the public sphere.

In response to Google's erroneous Street View data collection system, Berlin's upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, has drawn up draft legislation to further tighten data protection.

As it stands the California-based search engine is already obliged by law to render faces and car license plates appearing in the photographs unrecognizable before publication, and to withdraw pictues of unconsenting people.

Too many demands?

But the new draft, which has yet to be passed by parliament, would go a step further. The Bundesrat wants a provision of anonymity for the facades of buildings if homeowners or tenants so desire.

A map with an inset of tourists in Paris, Place Charles de Gaulle
Too recognizable for Germany?Image: Google Maps

Companies such as Google, seeking to use street level images, would be bound to contact the relevant data protection official three months before any systematic filming was carried out. Failure to comply with the new rules would result in fines of up to 300,000 euros ($377,00).

The proposed legislation is as controversial as the map service itself, with President of Germany's Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, August-Wilhelm Scheer, calling it "political activism". He said Germany should consider the direction it was taking.

"Germany should not become notorious for finding problems with new technology," he said, adding that data protection should be geared towards international standards.

Author: Tamsin Walker (AFP/dpa)
Editor: Mark Mattox