German government considers how to address concern over Google’s ‘Street View’ feature

By Geir Moulson, AP
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

German gov’t considers ‘Street View’ concerns

BERLIN — The German government will consider new rules to address the privacy implications of Internet services such as Google’s “Street View,” and plans a meeting next month with the California-based company and others, officials said Wednesday.

Google said earlier this month that it will introduce its mapping feature for 20 German cities before the end of the year, adding to concerns in the privacy-conscious country about the extent to which people’s personal data are accessible on the Internet.

Google has introduced an online tool that allows Germans to ask to have images of their homes removed. The company says it is doing more than legally required to protect people’s privacy.

The issue landed on the government’s agenda for Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting after parliament’s upper house called last month for tougher rules on such services.

Ministers decided to look at measures to “strengthen legal security on the Internet” by this fall, government spokesman Christoph Steegmans said.

He didn’t elaborate on what that might entail, but said that any new legislation “must ensure a balance between the interests of data protection and economic interests.”

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere plans to invite companies such as Google and Microsoft, as well as data protection and consumer protection officials, to a meeting Sept. 20 on “the opportunities and limits” of such mapping services, ministry spokesman Philipp Spauschus said.

The ministry will then present “proposed solutions” for handling those services, he added. De Maiziere appeared skeptical of rushing into legislation on the issue amid the current flap over “Street View,” and pointed to contradictions in the German discussion.

In an interview with the daily Berliner Zeitung, he called for “caution in introducing blanket rules allowing objections.”

“There are people who on the one hand tweet about their entire private life … but on the other hand fight against their (home’s) facade being photographed,” de Maiziere was quoted as saying. “That is absurd. There need to be regulations on the matter — but we shouldn’t become hysterical.”

“Street View” has been controversial in Germany, South Korea and elsewhere amid fears that people — filmed without their consent — could be seen on the footage doing things they didn’t want to be seen doing or in places where they didn’t want to be seen.

The U.S. Internet giant lost the trust of many in Europe this spring when it had to acknowledge that the technology used by its “Street View” cars had also vacuumed up fragments of people’s online activities broadcast over public Wi-Fi networks for the past four years.

Renate Kuenast, a leader of the opposition Greens, said the government had “simply slept through the development” of services like “Street View.”

“We don’t need a round table on Google that puts off the issue and people’s questions for another year — we need data protection rules now,” she said.

Germany’s data protection watchdog, Peter Schaar, urged the government to come up quickly with new legislation including a “central objections register” which would allow people to ensure their personal data are kept off the Internet without having to go to individual companies.

“It cannot be that the right to object depends on the goodwill of the respective companies,” Schaar said.

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