Street View represents Germany's first real discussion about online privacy, said Markus Beckedahl, editor of the influential blog Netzpolitik. But there are other problematic privacy issues worthy of debate, he said.
Street View made privacy a concern of millions of Germans
Over the last six years, Netzpolitik.org has emerged as one of Germany's most popular blogs exploring the intersection of politics and technology.Its editor, Markus Beckedahl, has written extensively about the issue of Google Street View and its pending launch in Germany.
Beckedahl explained to Deutsche Welle that while Street View hits an emotional nerve, there are larger online privacy issues that Germans should be worried about.
Deutsche Welle: After nearly 18 months of discussion, Google is going ahead with its Street View project and put images of German cities online by the end of 2010. Is all of this public discussion over privacy much ado about nothing?
Markus Beckedahl is the editor of Netzpolitik.org
Markus Beckedahl: I don't think Google Street View is a debate about nothing. But it sounds a bit crazy because Google Street View isn't the biggest privacy problem that we have in Germany. It's the first privacy debate where a lot of people can feel something about it. In this debate you have your houses, you can see them. You can feel how it is when your house is being pictured on the Internet. When it comes to your data it's something you can't really see and you can't really feel. People don't care about personal data because they have no clue about databases.
But now, Google Street View it's something where my parents have an opinion about it, and maybe your parents do, too. This is a new level in that debate. And I think there is another aspect: that it's Google. Google is the biggest brand in the data industry and Google has been very much discussed in the German public and the German media. Most German media are critical of Google - so the combination of the big brand Google and the perception that they store too much data, including our houses, this is the heart of the German debate on Street View.
The data protection debate has been going on among experts for a long time in Germany. Do you think this is the first time it's been so prominent in the mainstream?
Yeah, it's the first time that the older people in society are taking notice of Internet privacy. When it comes to other privacy debates in Germany, for example, the data retention debate, it's a debate where more younger people who are using the Internet are more engaged in that debate. Now, when it comes to Google Street View it's a debate run by older people who are not part of the Internet society.
Do you think the reasons that people have given against Google Street View make sense - are people's fears rational and reasonable?
Not really. I think most of the fears are irrational, and I think there are bigger problems concerning privacy issues. I think there are bigger privacy problems with other Google services than there are with Google Street View. But the difference between privacy issues of using Google Mail or using the Google search engine and storing all the data for nine months or longer, is totally different from a picture of my house on the Internet. On the other hand, it's just a new step for Google to get more and more information and maybe it's one step too far. People fear that Google is storing too many different kinds of data on different kinds of services.
Merkel said she would not remove her home from Street View
Chancellor Merkel has said she would not take herself off of Street View, while Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has said he would do everything to stop the service. How do you see this as playing out in the political sphere?
In the so-called "sommerloch," the debates over the summer holidays, a lot of people thought that German politicians went crazy in the Street View debate. Lots of the politicians who were in favor of more state surveillance were now the biggest privacy activists. That was totally crazy because most of the other privacy activists thought it's not a matter of debate - we have bigger problems than Google Street View and you shouldn't worry about such a small issue.
A lot of politicians used this debate to create a good image of themselves and to tell the people that they understand their feelings and that they will protect them from this big company Google from the United States.
Google has said they're going to be releasing Street View later this year in Germany's 20 biggest cities. Where do you think this issue will go from here?
I'm not sure. I think the debate is over. I think it was a classic sommerloch story - a debate for the summer holidays when nothing else is happening. I think that when Google introduces the service in the first 20 cities, a lot of people will look at it and see how nice it is to see how our neighborhood looks and you can look at other neighborhoods and they will like this kind of service, the same as they like the introduction of Google Maps or Google Earth, or other services from other companies.
I think there will only be some people who use the opt-out and there will be some people who think that they should opt-in, and so their house will be in the Internet in the future so their house can be seen in that service.
Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Sean Sinico