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Charm offensive

March 5, 2010

Google's 3D mapping service Street View has faced unprecedented opposition from German authorities and privacy advocates. Now, after years of negotiations, Google says its German platform is almost ready for launch.

Google Street View camera on a car
Google's camera cars have been driving all over GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

US Internet giant Google has been trying to counter German opposition to its Street View service for years, locking horns with officials who claim the wholesale collection and publication of images of private property represents a massive breach of privacy. Now, after striking a deal with data protection authorities that allows people to opt out of its image library, Google has launched a publicity offensive aimed at promoting its service and dispelling public concerns about privacy. It even attended CeBIT as an exhibitor for the first time to show off its camera cars and give the press a product demonstration. Deutsche Welle's business editor Sam Edmonds met Google Germany spokesman Kay Oberbeck and asked him to explain what Street View is, and what it isn't.

Google spokesman Kay Oberbeck at CeBIT 2010
Google spokesman Kay Oberbeck insists Street View is legal in GermanyImage: Google

Kay Oberbeck: Basically, Google Street View is a new mapping product. When you think of old maps on paper, for instance, or even when you think of digitized products on the computer, they are mostly two-dimensional. Google Street View gives you a 360-degree panorama view, so you actually feel like you are in the street. This has numerous positive aspects. Just think of the tourism aspect of it; in all 19 countries where we have launched Google Street View within the past three years we’ve got tremendous positive feedback from the tourism boards, because it helps to promote sightseeing spots, for example. Or in case you want to move from one town to another, you can take a first look at your new city simply from your computer. There are really numerous ways how to make good use of Street View.

Deutsche Welle: German authorities have raised a number of privacy concerns about Google Street View, but within the last week or so there's been some movement. Where do things stand right now compared to other European countries?

First of all, we are totally sure that Google Street View is legal in Germany. This has been decided and agreed upon by German data protection authorities. And its legitimacy has been proven by many expert opinions; lately, for instance, at the court in Cologne; not with Google Street View but in a similar case. So, the difference between Germany and other countries is that, here in Germany, we have to sign a list of terms and conditions which we agreed upon with the data protection authorities. We are really confident that we will fulfill those conditions, so that we hope to launch Street View in Germany within this year.

Screenshot of Google Streetview from San Francisco
Virtually every street around Google's home turf, San Francisco, can be viewed on the webImage: picture alliance/dpa

So, it’s not a super spy camera?

No. Google Street View is not about people and particularly not about searching people. You cannot search people with Street View and that’s not what we want to do. That’s the reason why we developed tools to blur faces and licence plates automatically. And you can even send us a note saying you don’t want a particular image to be live on the internet; be it your own house or your car or you yourself.

Just before CeBIT opened, the chief of Germany’s IT industry association Bitkom, August-Wilhelm Scheer, made a few comments saying he wasn’t really satisfied with the way the government in Berlin handles IT matters. What do you think?

We obviously welcome those words by Mr. Scheer since he addresses an issue which we are concerned about too. We see that there are a lot of ministries who do show interest in the web, which is a good thing as such. But we would welcome it, if those ministries would strive for a dialogue with Google itself on specific issues.

Is Germany afraid of the internet?

No, definitely not. There are more than 42 million Germans who are constantly on the web. Germany is definitely not an anti-internet country; but nonetheless the internet as such an innovation brings along lots of open questions and new issues. Companies innovative in the internet have to answer those questions and that’s what we are doing here at CeBIT; and we’re happy to do this. We will develop many other products in the future; nobody knows exactly what the internet is going to bring along next. But we would welcome a positive and welcoming attitude towards innovation on the internet; an attitude that takes innovation as it is: as a helpful tool for users and for all people, in general.

Interview: Sam Edmonds
Editor: Kristin Zeier