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German angst alone cannot stop Google

The Local · 19 Aug 2010, 14:40

Published: 19 Aug 2010 14:40 GMT+02:00

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The heated debate about Google’s Street View in Germany has already claimed its first victim: the justified criticism of online services offering panorama street-level photos. There are good arguments against launching Google’s program in its current form, but they are in danger of being lost in a wave of hysteria.

Nothing nefarious has happened yet. Millions of pictures of German houses have taken by Google's special cars, and they have been stored on the US internet giant’s servers. But now these pictures are to go online – and the outcry has been overwhelming.

Amid all the classic German angst, good arguments against Street View have been mixed with downright silly ones. The pro-Google camp gleefully quotes its opponent's most absurd comments and stands by the under-fire web company. But that doesn’t change that Google really has done a lot wrong.

The company sent out cars to film the streets from a height of 2.9 metres. This is high – ask someone to sit on your shoulders and this is about the view they would have. Then ask them to tell you whether they can see over walls and hedges.

In many parts of Germany, such barriers are restricted to a height of two metres – often lower. Is there a clearer sign that you would prefer that people didn't see into your property than by building a wall as tall as allowed by the law? I don't believe there is.

Of course, Germany is not the only country that has a problem with Street View. The project was criticised in Switzerland and Greece, among other places, and in 2009 Google was forced to re-photography 20 Japanese towns from a lower angle.

Politicians want Google to obscure car licence plates and people. But what do they mean by obscuring people? So far, Google has only suggested obscuring faces. You don't have to be a criminologist to know that people can be recognised by many other features than their face. If you've seen how poorly Google has tried to make people unrecognisable in other countries you'll know that their standard is unacceptable.

And then there is the issue of objecting to service entirely. Google, in line with the tradition among US companies, sees raising objections as a service. But this highlights something of a culture clash between America and Germany – the right to opt out should not simply be an act of good will on the part of a company.

Google only makes use of public space, which is fair enough. But in most cases the use of this space is subject to certain conditions, and it is these that the government must now finally make clear. It has had many years to do this, but apparently this has never been deemed necessary before.

But it will take more than a national legal framework in Germany to deal with this issue. A large number of Google's servers are situated outside the European Union. Even if the relevant laws were introduced Europe-wide, and data protection commissioners wanted to take action against, for example, the poor attempts to make people anonymous, whom exactly would they sue?

German Street View is not operated by Google Germany, located in Hamburg, but by the parent company sitting in the United States. If the company really did care about German data protection standards, then they would move those operations here, making them legally accountable.

We lack a sensible legal framework and an agreement that ensures that European data protection standards can be maintained even if companies process and keep EU-based data abroad.

Story continues below…

In theory, such an agreement has existed for nearly ten years. It is called the International Safe Harbour Privacy Principles. But in practice it is worthless, and what is wrong with it can't be mended on a domestic level.

So that leaves us with the users. What should they do? Should they chase down all these services, raise objections and keep a legal account of it all? Or should they agree a flat-rate fee with their lawyers? Current German law unfortunately doesn't even allow such things.

All we can do is hope that those participating in the current debate don't lose their sense of perspective, and that they see the launch of Street View – which remains inoffensive barring further changes – as an opportunity to demand some rather more fundamental changes.

Falk Lüke is a consumer rights expert for the Federation of German Consumer Organisations, which operates the website Surfer Haben Rechte. This commentary originally appeared in German at Zeit Online. Translation by The Local.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

09:52 August 21, 2010 by notelove2
Thank you Falk Lüke. I don't think it is being hysterical to desire one's privacy. Why should the general public be able to look into one's backyard?
10:00 August 21, 2010 by catjones
The only argument opposing Street View is "I don't like it".

I don't like jets flying over my house from Tegel...shall we shut down the airport?

I don't like the cars driving past my house after 22:00....shall we close down the street?

I don't like German Consumer Agencies that don't truly protect anyone except German corporations...........
10:45 August 21, 2010 by MonkeyMania
One can never be too careful regarding protecting the right to privacy. Street view looks to be a very useful tool for us all, but until we are fully aware of the pros and cons I prefer to err on the side of caution and would prefer our governments took the paranoid approach in contrast to freely signing off on our right to privacy and data protection. Google is a large corporation and who knows how and for what data gathered can be used.
18:59 August 21, 2010 by wood artist
While this article begins to approach a realistic discussion of the issue(s) it still fails to identify a single reason that Google should be treated any differently than anyone who can walk down a public street and take a picture.

Monkey, I have no problem with your idea of "going slow" except that no one has been able to identify a single valid or reasonable question that hasn't been answered.

What can someone see?

They can see a house or building or field or whatever, just the same as if they bothered to drive by. They could, assuming they were there, take the same picture. In fact, they might be able to take a more invasive picture, because they could hold their camera high, right next to the fence or hedge, and see more than the camera in the middle of the street can see!

Whatever the camera photographs is/was being done in public view, so obviously any claim that this was private activity is completely without foundation. If you parked on the street, your car and license plate is displayed in plain view to anyone and everyone who happens by. There is no expectation of privacy, nor could there be one. German courts have ruled upon this many time, as have the courts in other lands.

What danger lurks in these pictures? What could be seen that would somehow compromise your privacy? If you were "doing that" within public view, you clearly had given up any claim to privacy.

Questions? Sure. They should be asked. But the answers are obvious, and the whole thing has become some giant game of hysteria that has no foundation in fact.

00:32 August 22, 2010 by Prufrock2010
wood artist is correct on all counts. One has no reasonable expectation of privacy on the street, and Street View is not peering into anyone's bedroom or living room. This whole controversy is phony, but the paranoia among the Germans is real.
10:09 August 22, 2010 by adipk
its about money making. may be some one want to get..... when all faces, car number plates and other personal stuff is hidden, where is the problem.
19:22 August 22, 2010 by wood artist
Oh no! I'm doomed! Prufrock agrees with me.

Seriously, I'm still waiting to hear a valid reason to make this such an issue.

20:37 August 22, 2010 by Prufrock2010
I agree with you often, wood artist. You're one of the most rational people on these threads. And when I disagree, I try to do so respectfully.
11:27 August 23, 2010 by freechoice
dun worry people, google is working with some researchers in California to completely remove the human element from their street view....
15:05 August 23, 2010 by catjones
What's next, blurring photos on facebook so german employers can't see them?
18:52 August 23, 2010 by Prufrock2010
No, I think they're planning to ban Facebook altogether.
08:07 August 25, 2010 by MonkeyMania
Actually banning facebook altogether would not be a bad thing. That is a real invasion of privacy. I could have my picture taken by a stranger accidentally and posted on their facebook and then through face recognition software get tagged and pictures of me wherever or doing whatever are available for all to see on the www. As for street view, maybe the german government is really paranoid of google giving accurate coordinates of buildings which could then be used by a foreign power to launch missile attacks in the future. OK, not going to happen at the moment, but who knows what is going to happen in the future. Just a thought!
11:56 August 25, 2010 by ovbg
@notelove2, you ask "Why should the general public be able to look into one's backyard? ",

What is the point of your question? If the view of the "backyard" is open to the public from a public vantage point, then how can you oppose it? Do you suggest everyone turns away when passing every private property on a public street? What is the logic of your question?

@MonkeyMania, it's pretty easy to know the pro's and con's of Streetview. It takes low resolution photos of streets from public places, no different to any other photo that can and has been taken in which you never probably complained about before. Would you prefer a complete ban on ALL photography in public places? If Streetview is banned, this would be the only logical next step. Are you serious about missile launches based on Streetview? Do you really think foreign powers are going to look at private homes on Streetview to choose which houses to launch missiles at?

@the article in general. It does sort of start off in a logical way, but then falls flat. Falk Lüke first states that too many absurd complaints about Streetview clouds over the good ones, and then his good ones that are presented are also absurd in many ways. Take the height of the streetview photos, claiming that they are so different than walking down the street because they are higher. Yes, true for walking, but he completely forgets that many people, a great deal, take buses which are on about the same level as these camera's, not to mention places like Berlin which have double decker buses and are at an even higher level, or trucks.

Then he comments on the obscuring faces argument. Has he actually wondered what the point of obscuring faces actually does? Does he also propose all faces are obscured in all online photos? What about Flickr? And those faces are often in so much higher detail and quality than Streetview could provide.

Sorry, but your objections are just as absurd as all the rest. Unless you want ALL photos on EVERY webpage blurred or blocked, then stop whining about Streetview.
14:30 August 25, 2010 by XFYRCHIEF
@monkeymania: We spent three weeks traveling in Germany this year. Took about 2,000 pictures, including many of homes. My GPS gave me precise coordinates (within 1 meter.) Don't see how StreetView could be more useful.

As`far as banning FaceBook - then ban Twitter and all of the other social networking sites. We might as well just try to ban the Internet all together.

Think about the contries whose paranoia leads them to restrict Internet access - China, Cuba, Iran...do you really want to add Germany to that list?
19:32 August 25, 2010 by michael4096
Many years ago a load of not so nice guys took public records and abused them. The solution, according to many, is to not create public records; 'cos you never know (cue: spooky music). However, I think that if a bunch of not-so-nice are going to abuse you they wouldn't let the lack of public records stop them.

Which scenario is likely to lead to the better society: (a) one where all information is 'secret', i.e. a priviledged few have control over everything; or, (b) one where all information is public and everybody must live with the fact that there is no private data. Two extremes, I agree, but of the two the second sounds far better to me than the first. If we are going to err, let it be on the no 'power through control of knowledge' side.
22:34 August 26, 2010 by hOU
Why must you insist on using photos w/ no labelliong? What the hell is that body on the floor and what is its connection to this story?!

07:11 August 27, 2010 by parografik
I completely agree with Hou. Captions, Please!!

What is going on in that picture, and was that taken with a google camera? If so, did the driver stop, or at least call a paramedic? Or are those camera vans unmanned like the soul of google?
08:11 August 27, 2010 by ovbg
^^ Excellent point. The photo at the top has nothing to do with the current situation, but was one of the odd funny things that end up getting photographed. Aparently, some kids were playing at the time the streetview car went past and one was "playing dead". She had no idea the streetview car drove past at the time. A short story of it can be found here:

08:42 August 27, 2010 by Actuality
I love Streetview. I can use it to literally wander down memory lane, looking at the places I've lived in London and Cornwall.

Can I just settle the argumanet once and for all?

The fact is that any one of us can go down any one of the public highways these photos are taken from, and freely take a duplicate of the photo ourself.

That this reaction against SV is coming from a country where people are required to carry ID cards and register in every city they move to is hilarious.

More seriously, full body scanners were ushered in the back door on the flimsiest of premises, and the reaction of the public seemed mild in contrast to this.

I can't wait until Hamburg has it! When I visit my family in England I'll be able to give them a real virtual tour!
21:41 August 28, 2010 by parografik
Thanks OVBG, it's not even German!

Upon reading up on this topic further, I understand that someone was quite upset that Google Street View captured him leaving an adult bookstore. I would imagine that he/she was not so upset that they were caught purchasing pornagraphy, but that they were caught not using the internet or better google to find it.
14:04 August 29, 2010 by heini
The problem with Google taking pictures of our neighborhoods has nothing to do with members of our own community who know us being able to see into our gardens. People who stop to exchange the time of day and such. Nor is it with guests in our communities who spend time learning about our culture and contributing to our economy as tourists. The problem is that the data is being stored about our homes and towns by a corporation in a foreign country and made available to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who have no business with us in any respect. We have a right to tell Google to buzz-off.
17:40 August 29, 2010 by ovbg
quote from heini: "The problem is that the data is being stored about our homes and towns by a corporation in a foreign country and made available to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who have no business with us in any respect. We have a right to tell Google to buzz-off. "

So, point one, is it the dirty foreigners that you have problems with?

Second point, so no corporation has the right to store public information?

Please explain in further detail.
12:17 August 31, 2010 by hkypuck
First of all, for all of you that oppose this on the basis that "people can see into my house or my yard!" - Get over yourself. No one cares about you. You are not as special as you think.

And what prevents people from making there own 'Google Earth' images? Sure it would take some time, but in some of these small towns you could literally walk down the street with your digital camera and take pictures from house to house then upload it onto Google.

The other thing to consider: Next time you're having a party and no one shows up because Münchenerstraße unexpectedly becomes Theriesenstraße, blame it on your all-important privacy.
18:43 September 3, 2010 by Alofat
If no one cares about us, why do they need pictures of our houses?

Sure people can make photos for themselves, but as soon as they put them on the interwebz and wanna make money with pictures of my property, I will develop a big ****ing problem with that.

Yes hkypuckzulutlputtl, I wonder every time how people can find streets and house numbers in our dark times without the help of our savior Google, Hallelujah.
06:23 September 4, 2010 by parografik
Well, good news, folks! Thanks to google street view, Brad Pitt and George Clooney decided it was the ideal frontage for the part of Ocean's 73 where the buddies start the movie down and out. They're even using it on the poster.

I'll be receiving royalty checks everytime someone orders it from Netflix (Picture middle age man rolling around on bed with paper currency, ala "Indecent Proposal's" Demi Moore).
18:01 October 12, 2010 by zaly

Anybody read the latest report ExpatExplorer conducted by HSBC with regard to German people?

All expatriate around the world has vote higher ranking the "rude and arrogant" without any reason for German people, the expat told, the German so rude even they just asking for help or a simple question/direction.


Google Street is good for someone who is first timer and familiar about that place and that is nothing to worried unless we are doing something bad..
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