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Digitally desecrating Germany’s landscape
Photo: A screenshot by Jeff Jarvis

Digitally desecrating Germany’s landscape

Published: 04 Nov 2010 10:40 GMT+01:00
Updated: 04 Nov 2010 10:40 GMT+01:00

With nearly a quarter of a million Germans opting out of Google’s Street View service, US author and journalist Jeff Jarvis laments the digital bombing of the country’s landscape in a guest commentary.

Street View is online in Germany and it includes – or rather, excludes – 244,000 addresses that Germans have demanded be pixelated. They have, in their word, demanded their Verpixelungsrecht.

It is more offensive than I had imagined, a desecration of the public demanded and abetted by German politicians and media on a supposed privacy frenzy.

See the building on Hugo-von-Königsegg-Straße in Oberstaufen above.

Ugly, isn’t it? As someone in the audience said when I spoke on the topic at a meeting of the Green party in Berlin a few weeks ago, it is as if they are digitally bombing the German landscape.

Now you can drive to Oberstaufen and stand across the street – between the Edele bookstore and Dr. Fassnacht’s building – and look at the building all you want because you would be exercising your right to be in public. But not online, not in the land of Deutschnet, you can’t. Germany has now diminished the public. It has stolen from the public.

This is not a matter of privacy. And don’t tell me it has a damned thing to do with the Nazis and Stasi; that’s patently absurd. If anything, the Stasi would have exercised their Verpixelungsrecht to obscure their buildings from public view, taking advantage of the cloak of secrecy the idea provides. That’s the danger of this.

This is an issue of publicness. These are public visions now obscured. This is why I am writing a book about protecting the public from assaults such as this. I can’t write it fast enough.

What have you done, Germany?

You have digitally desecrated your cities. You have diminished and devalued your public space. You have thus robbed your own public. And you have set dangerous precedents for your future.

All that with a few pixels obscuring buildings on Google Street View.

In the mania over privacy among government and media in Germany, Google was pressured to pixelate not just people’s faces and cars’ license plates but also buildings. Suddenly buildings themselves gained a new Verpixelungsrecht.

Those buildings are fully visible and photographed from public streets. Anyone exercising Germany’s so-called Panoramafreiheit may photograph them. But not Google, not if the owner requests pixelization, and 244,000 German buildings have.

I thought pixelating buildings was mostly just silly until I saw it. Now I am saddened and angered. Look at Hugo-von-Königsegg-Straße in Oberstaufen. You may drive there and stand across the street and take your own picture of the building – but not on Google Street View.

This is embarrassing. When I spoke recently about privacy and publicness (Datenschutz and Öffentlichkeit) at an event organized by die Greens in Berlin, someone from the audience asked whether with all this pixelization, Germany is digitally bombing its own buildings and visual history. At the time, I thought that was a bit strong. Not so much now.

Why is this happening?

I do not believe this is a matter of privacy. How is one’s privacy violated by taking a photo of a public view from a public street?

Neither do I believe this is a matter of Germany’s unique history. At the Greens event and elsewhere when I’ve spoken about this topic in Germany, Germans have raised the Stasis and Nazis (I didn’t). Now that they’ve mentioned it, I find the argument illogical, even dangerous. If anything, the Stasi would have been the most eager to exercise their Verpixelungsrecht to obscure their buildings and actions from public view, taking advantage of the cloak of secrecy this idea provides. That is the dangerous precedent that is set here. If Google can be told that the public is not public, who else can be told this: Journalists? You?

So why the German mania? I hear some complain that Google is daring to make money for its effort mapping and photographing the streetscape. Well, German governments photograph the land and sell the data. T-Mobile’s Telefonbuch.de not only lists names and phone numbers of citizens but shows images from above of their homes and backyards – from four angles. Sightwalk.de does what Google Street View does. Where is the protest against them? Is that Google is an American company? I hope not.

Is it that Google is a technology company? There lies another danger. If this is how the nation reacts when new technologies bring change, then the technologists may choose to work elsewhere. Germany’s privacy chief has already decreed, for example, that combining geo technology with facial recognition is taboo – before it is even used. What if such technology could be used to help find people after a disaster such as Katrina or the Haiti earthquake? How can one politician be so quick to decree how everyone should not use new technology?

Is this perhaps a trend without teeth, a fiction created by media who resent Google, and politicians who see an opportunity here to get attention? Considering that Google has a higher marketshare in Germany than in most any other country on earth, I think that’s possible. I’m not the only one who has been ridiculing the pixel bombs. Jens Best has promised to take pictures of the pixilated building and link to them from Street View. On Twitter, there’s a conversation underway under the hashtag, the label, #blurmany. But even if the Verpixelungsrecht is merely politicians’ and media’s folly, the danger and damage are the same.

I say this is an issue of publicness, of the value of the public and the public’s ownership of it. This is why I am writing a book to be called “Public Parts” in the US – and “The German Paradox” in Germany – about protecting the public from assaults such as this. For publicness is our precious tool of democracy.

I write this as a friend of Germany. I urge you to consider the consequence, the precedent, the meaning of what you have done to your own digital world and the society we are building there, to your own Deutschnet.

Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?”, writes extensively about media and internet issues. This commentary appeared as a post on his blog BuzzMachine and in German at Zeit Online.

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Your comments about this article

10:59 November 4, 2010 by pepsionice
Just a comment from an American who spent 15 years in Germany. Germans have this "dream" of being safe. These are folks who don't take risks. They don't borrow money unless it's necessary. They don't use credit cards very much. They don't typically buy sports cars. They vote for political organizations that seem safe. They go on vacations typically to places where things are safe. So the Google image puts their house up in view of everyone....and I suspect they don't feel safe with that picture out there. And to add fuel to fire of discussion....my German wife, over twenty years of marriage, has only allowed five or six pictures of herself to ever be taken....ever.
11:03 November 4, 2010 by catjones
"Is that Google is an American company? I hope not."

You'd be naive to believe otherwise. Same anti-American fervor over Wal-Mart, McDonalds. Germans take hypocritical delight in "kicking the Americans out" and then whine and complain if Mercedes, BMW, wind turbines aren't treated "fairly" in the USA.

If there was an American consumer backlash against Germany, the "miracle" recover would drop like a stone. Instead, my American friends just laugh.
12:22 November 4, 2010 by Zobirdie
I dont think that Google streetview is the be-all and end-all of mapness and I do think it is invasive. My sister back in Canada didnt have her drapes drawn when streetview came by and you can see right in her windows when you zoom in to the image.

Add to that- google was collecting wifi data- including passwords, emails and etc, and I think that germans were well within their rights to have serious concerns about the whole thing. Only now is google admitting just to what extent this pilfered data is. Big Brother, anyone? When will they sell it to advertisers so that they have even more specific data on you at your location?

I dont think it is digital bombing to pixillate ones house on streetview. Yes. You or I could go to oberstaufen and take a picture of that house on the street... but would you do it? Probably not. While, yes, Its in the public domain, and if the public wants to go look it up, fine. Having google do it? I dunno. It bothers me.
12:28 November 4, 2010 by DinhoPilot
We will be reaching the end of the world and people will still be discussing street view...

Don't get me started on public, millions can see your house, etc... The problem nowadays is the digital dumbness of people! They post pretty much their all lives online. Facebook, msn, this and that, etc.. How is it that a dude in China or Mongolia or Brasil would take interest in your place if they wouldn't even know who lives there? Paranoid...
12:30 November 4, 2010 by loz_adele
Personally, I can undertsand both sides of the argument but I do tend to agree more with the idea that it's a waste of time because people could just take their own photo of your house anyway if they were going to burgle it or whatever. I doubt the lack of an online picture would put off any robbers. Faces and number plates are a slightly different matter in my opinion though, I wouldn't like to be in the background of any google photos (I hope I'm not!). However, I do think this 'digital desecration' stuff is nonsense, OK so it's a shame you can't see some buildings but let's not get carried away. And as far as I'm concerned, of course the Nazi and Stasi past has a bearing on how German people feel about things, after all it wasn't that long ago. Yes, maybe the Stasi would want to hide their own headquarters, but I think they'd be more interested in how they could use it to spy on people if it still existed today. I have to question whether Jeff Jarvis has ever spent a siginificant period in Germany because it doesn't sound like he knows much about its people.

On a separate point, it's extremely badly written. I know it's from a blog entry but lots of bits are repeated and it's so patronizing. What, so just because Google can't get its own way someone has to write a book about it lecturing everyone on how stupid they are? Give me a break, he's just trying to make money. Tbh it sounds like he's more interested in plugging his own book than affecting any real change in Germany's attitudes and convincing them of the potential benefits of google street view. "What have you done, Germany?" "I urge you to consider the consequence, the precedent, the meaning of what you have done to your own digital world and the society we are building there, to your own Deutschnet" oh please! Get off your high horse, mate.
12:33 November 4, 2010 by William Thirteen
to compare the blurring of selected buildings in Google Street View to the bombing of German cities during WWII is an insult to those who perished in the bombings, those who endured them and the pilots who risked their lives dropping the bombs in the vain hope that it would somehow bring a quicker end to the war.

it seems neither side of this discussion is without their hysterics...
13:33 November 4, 2010 by iseedaftpeople
I am also having my house pixelated, because I do not want the whole world to be able to see it online. Too bad if you are offended by a blurry digital blotch on your screen where my house should be, but I do not think an Einfamilienhaus in a quiet residential area is part of the public sphere.

I have more right to be offended at having no control over who gets to take a close look at my house (and have you ever really used the zoom function? You can practically tell what brand of locks somebody has on their front door!). You can take photos of the street in front of my house all you like, but other than that, your precious public sphere ends at the edge of my property.
13:53 November 4, 2010 by bill35
Ok I know it's unfair to others I can look how their houses look like , but you cannot look mine.I let it also pixelated.Sorry mate.
14:26 November 4, 2010 by maxbrando
Freedom works all kinds of ways. Yes, you can go to a place in real life and look at a "pixellated" house. So, go do it!! You have no "right" to a photo of my house. Period. Stop making the rules up for the rest of us.
14:50 November 4, 2010 by mrsams
My psycho ex is the only one interested to come over and take photo of my home. The whole block of the apartment where I'm living also pixellated.
14:55 November 4, 2010 by berlineric
While there is ongoing concern about what non-photographic information Google's Street View cars collect, on this specific issue it does seem that the one thing a homeowner accomplishes by pixellating their home in Street View is to draw undue attention to their property, rather than blending in anonymously among all the others -- surely the opposite of the homeowner's intent .
15:03 November 4, 2010 by Beachrider
The agreement that Google struck was that people can have the houses excluded. It sounds like their protocol is such that ANYONE can make a given house exclude. As one person wrote, a subsequent ANYONE would have to unblock the house, if that was their desire.

After the what-is-the-law discussion, this does smack of Ameri-phobia. A few German websites publish street-view of many houses and never got any objection to their publishing or international-izing the pictures.

That is a shame...
15:05 November 4, 2010 by Bushdiver
Germans are just plain paranoid. I of course din't live here during the Nazi regime or had to deal with the Stasi but I do remember when Satellite TV first became available in Germany. At the time I was installing Satellite Dishes and was on many occassion confronted by a neighbor worrying about being harmed by dangereous rays. This is a country of followers, not leaders. If you were to paint for example a yellow line on a street that ended up smack front of a brick wall most German motorists would follow it till they ran into the wall.
15:11 November 4, 2010 by Der Grenadier aus Aachen
While I do appreciate everyone's opinion, I think it basically boils down to this:

Our country, our laws, our decision.

I do, sincerely, without any sarcasm, apologize if this causes inconvenience to anyone. But, see above.
15:41 November 4, 2010 by ovbg
@iseedaftpeople,

Well, considering you have requested Google to blur your house, did you also ask them to blur their satellite image from above, which most likely also shows your backyard? Did you ask Microsoft to blur any Satellite and Bird's Eye images of your house? And since Microsoft is starting to roll out their own version of Streetview soon, possibly complete with video footage, will you ask to blur that out. Then of course, don't forget the German companies like Sightwalk.de. Did you also ask them?

Sorry, but you may have thought you have won something here, and preserved your privacy, but what you have done is exactly the opposite. Besides being a losing battle since Streetview is just the first of many to come, you have actually stood up in a silent room and shouted for attention. Your "blurred" property will now stand out like a sore thumb on that quiet suburban street. Neighbours will wonder what you have to hide. Thieves may target you because by hiding your property they may think you are hiding something valuable. Your most likely innocuous and anonymous house is that no longer. Simply by your actions, you have made it stand out.

And as for your last statement that a private house in a quiet suburban street should be exempt from photography is actually completely wrong. The law quite clearly states that from a public area, anyone can walk past your house and photograph it. What will you do now if a local decides to photograph your property in high resolution and link it to the Streetview location, which is fully legal and possible. People have been saying already they will do this.

Rule 101 for remaining invisible is to not make a scene. You have just done the opposite. If you kept your house unblurred, it is likely, being on a quiet suburban street, no one would have ever noticed it...
16:54 November 4, 2010 by moistvelvet
@Der Grenadier aud Aachen "Our country, our laws, our decision"

___________________

Yep you are right, then I assume you also respect countries like Iran in choosing to have the death by stoning or any other coutries having draconian laws if they are democracies?
17:18 November 4, 2010 by bill35
Why some people here make it as a big issues when we don't like our house to be seen? That is our private property and the google is offering us here of pixelation so to those people who accepted the offer that is our own decision if you don't like what is offered then go on... if you like what google did and you are happy that your house will be seen all over the world that's your own business.
18:51 November 4, 2010 by Landmine
I think Germans need to wake up to the 21st century. They still live in the dark ages as pepsionice said. Another example is Stuttgart 21. 30 years from now, when they are left in the dust and crying because even Egypt is more advanced than Germany I won;t be listening quite as politely to whiny Germans....
01:56 November 5, 2010 by Edmond Schindler
By asking Google to Pixelate both house addresses on either side of ones house would make the center house stand out beautifully, oder?

Food for thought...
05:31 November 5, 2010 by Georg123
"Oh , i am soooo glad Google pixelated my house, i can now finally live a safe and secure life and this will make it way less likely that someone breaks into my house"

What logic is that?

Germans (i am one too) are obsessed with safety, security, privacy because they have a big history of gotten ***ed over in the past, by politicians in particular. Privacy is also a big issue, you would need to learn about the former (communist) eastern Germany to even understand how Germans think.

However, this does not mean that this "angst" and stir is always coming together with logic and reasoning behind it. Every bank, every online vendor knows already WAY MORE about you than you might even know - Google streetview is (IMHO!) not a privacy issue, nor is the upcoming new personal ID with the chip embedded. Nothing new, really.

Rather look at your authorities or big companies and how such "powers" could infiltrate your privacy. And this is the case for a long time already, not only in Germany of course. Short: Let's say some authority would have a reason, do you believe they would not be able to get all kinds of information which they need?

And...don't you also think that the common burglar cannot simply drive to your street or house and see whats going on anyway? Even my German dad without computer and internet thinks the streetview debate in Germany is ridiculous. He simply said: "If someone wants to...they can do this anyway". And he's right.
13:38 November 5, 2010 by Bushdiver
@ Georg123.............

Germans (i am one too) are obsessed with safety, security, privacy because they have a big history of gotten ***ed over in the past, by politicians in particular.

I think you mean past and present, don't you? It's no different in America.
17:17 November 5, 2010 by roodoo
a bit off topic but the German politicians are so obsolete that they seriously tried to ban paintball after a German highscholl massacre.

The Bild Zeitung and some TV Media have been miss reporting about paintball for

15+years making out that it gives you murderous tendencies and its real war and that its not socially exceptable to shoot paint at one another.

Paintball fields are always having to defend themselves against these obsured

alligations and it can even sometimes end up that the field owner has to defend himself in court. But until this day no court could rule out that paintball is in germany illegal :)) Thank God!
17:51 November 6, 2010 by crm114
why are you whiney pro-street view yanks getting so hot under the collar about this? After all, if you want to look at the property all you need do is go there. The whingers as well seem to be labouring under the impression that those who opt out do so because of a desire for anonymity. It may just be that they like winding you lot up, if that is the case, it looks like they had the desired effect eh !
00:05 November 8, 2010 by MegaSwoop
It's really simple people. We as individuals have a right to tell corporations to SOD OFF for ANY reason we choose, rational or not.

Why trust Google or ANY business? Especially when they ARE making money off of this and for what? Simply having the resources to canvass the entire world? Thats crap.

Why defend big business? I hope you don't believe they would do the same for you...if you do well...thats laughable and so sad all at once.
03:48 November 8, 2010 by DEACON6825
Google Earth, Street View, has done their thing, In front of my home, in Amarillo, Texas. It does not bother me, atoll, atoll. I enjoy the Photo's.

The only problem, that I found with Google earth, is when I tried to find," Midway Island ". Finely found the Island under the name of " MIDWAY ATOLL"

Love putting in a few Photo's of where we've been. I even like to watch DB TV webcast of their trains going through Germany.
09:04 November 8, 2010 by ECSNatale
The Germans should be ashamed? Absolutely not. The utter disrespect and disregard for people's individual choices to not wish to be displayed online in such a manner is what is shameful.

Whether you think Street View is cool, helpful, a violation or whatever, a person or household should not be condemned and/or criticized because they don't wish to be a part of such a thing. Using examples of other online programs that might do similar things (or invade your privacy in a similar manner) as a reason to object to people's not wanting their privacy violated is absurd: I would venture to say that the reason there has not been a large outcry is that most people do not know those programs even exist. As for banks having your private information, that may be true, but they are not loading it into the internet for public consumption.

I am an American living in Germany and I completely support the discussion and the actions of forcing Google to allow people to opt out. The problem here is not whether or not German's are paranoid, the problem is that there are far too many silly, uneducated, and ignorant writers and pundits out there who do not place and value on personal freedom or choice. I think it is very clear where the shame should lie.
09:33 November 8, 2010 by El Sabio
I never saw this issue from the point of view displayed on this article. I am particularly impressed because I believe a good number of Germans might be like myself, not really thinking about the consequences.

Come to think of it, it really makes no sense to stop google from taking pictures of houses. Maybe people's faces can be blurred, but buildings? It's like having a clearer view of google maps. Now what if someone is looking for directions, to a blurred building? Also, like someone already pointed out here, any stalker or burgler targeting you will easily go to your house, and take memory-full pictures of your building.

Anybody is allowed to do this, why not Google? Google can be seen as a continuously travelling tourist who posts pictures online in a very cool way. As also pointed out on the article, what next? Journalists? Tourists? Will people ask journalists to blur their pictures before posting on newspapers or journals? Are people going to be banned from taking public photos of buildings and people before posting on facebook? Come on Germans...

Someone talked about safety here. It's not about safety since even greater crimes and stalkings exist from day to day. Google really shouldn't be banned completely. Believe it or not this is a change for the future, it is here to stay. While the other countries of the world make advancements using this technology, Germany will be left behind...
14:21 November 8, 2010 by bill35
As I said before, go on with you google viewing if you really love it..Germany will not left behind without google.So far Germany left behind other countries when it comes to technology and talking of economics Germany so successful with or without your "google viewing".I'm so thankful that Germany give limitation to google that at least the citizen can still decide if they like their private home to be seen or not throughout the world.

So go on what you believed good for you but don't go on whining and criticising people who need a bit of privacy.
22:42 November 8, 2010 by DEACON6825
I may have been wrong, but I thought Google was an Irish company.

If Google Earth Street View, is an invasion of privacy. Then is the photo's taken by the public. Then inserted into Google Earth. for the world to see. Is that also an invasion of privacy?

Google will blur any street view photo, freely. That was taken on public domain, not private property.

Are the webcast, from Deutche Bahn, an invasion of privacy?

nothing blurred there. Nor does DB need too.

I put some photo's taken in the 60's, into Google Earth. They were for the enjoyment of others, that had been on Midway & Adak Islands.

Check out Google Earth photo's at the Eiffel Tower, Pearl Harbor, or the Grand Canyon, they are great.
03:03 November 9, 2010 by franconia
Germans are paranoid. I know , i grew up in Germany. Do not look at their houses, please. You may catch them watching you from behind the curtains. You may see, that they not really have kept up their flower boxes on the windowsill. You may see that the yard is not up to par for street view and God forbid the car may not be washed and waxed, a big NO NO in Germany. You all know that the drunken A--hole that totaled your car in Germany is never shown or mentioned by name in the Papers, but, and here is the clincher, the damage to the beautiful BMW, and in exact Euros is never, ever omitted. That is called privacy of course!
10:59 November 9, 2010 by DepotCat
My cat is immortalised on Google's Street View :)

I just wished I'd cut the grass before they came :(
16:51 November 11, 2010 by ChannyG
I think this is quite a global topic and not isn't confined to Germany - perhaps it is simply that other countries do not exercise their right (?) to have their residences blocked out.

In any case, some people are simply more "private" than others, this we all know. Having said that, the Germans are particularly private people and it is certainly their right to be if they so choose. I'm not sure that anyone should pass judgement unless they have lived in Germany and understand the culture themselves first hand.

I am a foreigner living in Germany and while I find their intense privacy "odd" at times, I have grown to respect and appreciate the value such virtues adds to a community. Everyone feels safe here and acts in accordance with what society holds as reasonable and appropriate. These values of safely and privacy do make it a pleasant place to live. And I think irrespective of anyone's view, including my own, every individual should have the right to decide these things for themselves and the rest of us should simply respect that.
21:23 November 13, 2010 by rickingermany
Good for Germans exercising their right to privacy. You see, if someone stands outside my house, I might have seen them, I might recognise them should something happen in that street. That itself is a deterrent. If you are able to be viewed online by some crook then the casing of the house will not be seen and it is unlikely that any burglar will be caught.

I have seen in the UK this trend and in my view, Google Street View should be banned totally.
01:07 November 17, 2010 by Landmine
Hey Germans, Google is an American company, and we have satellite pictures of your roofs and yards. It's called Google Earth.

Time to cry wolf again...
12:34 November 19, 2010 by ebbelwoiguy
Rickingermany: SV is one car that drives past once in years. It's not live CCTV. A burglar that relies on outdated images will get caught in his own errors.

SV opens up the possibility to get an idea of places once familiar, or of places to be visited, or of places unlikely to be visited. You want to stamp it out for everyone else just out of your own inflated paranoia.

What else is on your banning fetish list?
13:57 November 19, 2010 by sgtbilly
As the author put it, "...I do not believe this is a matter of privacy. How is one¦#39;s privacy violated by taking a photo of a public view from a public street? "

Most certain it has every thing to do with privacy! Google is making money at showing your home, street and location for anyone with a computer and the knowledge of how to type.

If I own a home, or a building why shouldn't I have the right to allow viewing? Its my privacy and has absolutely nothing to do with the public's right to see it? After living in Germany for more than 20 years I whole heartily agree, our rights of privacy, and freedom are disappearing too fast, too soon.
17:03 November 30, 2010 by dizzyblondefrau
I live my whole life by mentality of "better safe than sorry ", it has never let me down. This is all about Liberty. If I don't want my all spread all over world, that is my liberty. If you want your all spread all over world, that is your liberty.

People must stop trying to FORCE THEIR way on others. Not gut!!

For any smartypants out there, liberty is not right bring harm to another.

Liberty is I do as I will, you do as you will. Some people want Force others do as THEY want. Too bad.

NOBOBY make me do ANYTHING against MY WILL!!!

Way to go Thelonius!!!:) and crm114, and MegaSwoop, and ECSNatale, and bill35, and rickingermany, and sgtbilly!!!:) and anyone else I missed who is on side of LIBERTY!!!!
18:58 January 13, 2011 by fryintl
Germany you go. Do not let soem idiot tell you you are wrong. Your country, your rules is right. He has nothing to say and should say it ...NOTHING!!
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Ten great inventions you (probably) didn't know were German
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Berlin
Clashes in Berlin as refugees tear down their own camp
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Munich's baby polar bears are finally named
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The 10 best German employers to work for
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What they don't teach you at Business School
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Society
Nine jobs you can only do in Germany
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How to integrate successfully in Germany
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Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
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