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Street View camera and Google logo
As of next year, Street View will be availabe for German citiesImage: picture alliance/dpa

Privacy concerns

October 21, 2010

A quarter of a million Germans have objected to having their homes put on display in Google Street View. The service plans to launch by the end of the year and has sparked a heated debate about privacy issues in Germany.


In a company blog entry posted in English and German on Thursday, Google said that more than 244,000 residents in Germany have requested that images of their homes be removed from Google's Street View mapping service.

That figure is out of a total of nearly 8.5 million households in Germany's 20 largest cities where the service will first launch.

"So what we came up with is that less than three percent of the households opt-out of Street View," said Lena Wagner, a Google spokesperson, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

Wagner also said that this shows that maybe Germans aren't as opposed to Street View as maybe the rhetoric suggests.

Major political figures, including the consumer affairs minister, Ilse Aigner, as well as data protection officials, have come out strongly against Google.

One recent survey just a few months ago in Germany found that over 50 percent of those polled were opposed to having their homes shown on Street View. Some local residents have even put up anti-Google signs in their yard.

But Wagner noted that despite their complaints, Germans actually like using Street View in other countries where it already exists, saying that hundreds of thousands of Germans use it every week.

"We also know that Germany is the number one country in terms of Street View in all countries where we haven't launched Street View yet," she added.

Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner has been a strong critic of Google
Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner has been a strong critic of GoogleImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Experts surprised at high figure

Some Internet policy experts say that because you have to opt-out of Google Street View, which means that residents have to explicitly say that they don't want to be part of it, it's surprising that the number of objectors was even that high.

"Going to a website, and entering all this information it takes a hell of a lot of time and effort, and I am just staggered by this 200,000 plus [number]," said Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, a professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University.

He added that data protection and privacy studies have shown that most people are lazy and don't bother to go through with filling out the forms necessary to opt-out.

Mayer-Schoenberger cited a a 2003 study from Duke University in the United States that concluded that "less than 10 percent of the U.S. population ever opts out of a mailing list - often the figure is less than three percent."

That may explain the difference between the widespread visceral reaction that some Germans had against Street View and the fact that relatively few people did anything about it. The controversy surrounding Google Street View is one of the first privacy issues that has reached such a level of national debate in Germany.

In recent months, Google even took out advertisements in major magazines and newspapers in order to explain to the public what Google Street View is.

But unlike other data privacy questions, which are often limited to a narrow group of privacy activists and online geeks, this time the question revolved around a private company having access to images of people's homes.

"A house is not a usual thing," explained Thomas Hoeren, a law professor at the University of Muenster's Institute for Information, Telecommunication and Media Law.

"It's not only a house. It's a secret, private place and we've had very bad experiences, when we had the Nazis, which were controlling all the houses into blocks and things like that. I think that's one of the reasons why Germans are so shocked if somebody wants to show the house, now." 

Street View screen shot
Street View allows users to get a panoramic view of streets and housesImage: picture alliance/dpa

Long history of privacy protection

However, since the time of the Nazis and the Stasi secret police in East Germany, the country has had one of the toughest privacy laws in the world. This opt-out plan may be fundamentally at odds with one of the basic tenants of German privacy law, that citizens must opt-in to have their data collected in any way.

After all, Germany hasn't had a census in over 20 years because of privacy concerns.

"It's unclear to me whether and to what extent this violates the German federal data protection act," added Mayer-Schoenberger "And there might be some legal action in the wings." 

Still, Google's Lena Wagner added that the company is only weeks away from launching Google Street View in Germany's 20 biggest cities, including Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.

Google certainly will eventually expand the service to the rest of Germany: over the last two years, it already has taken Street View photographs of nearly every city and village in the entire country.

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Charles Penfold

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