Google Street View, which gives users a sidewalk perspective in 27 countries, faces its stiffest opposition in Germany, where Google has been in turbulent negotiations with privacy regulators for years.
Last November, when the service launched in 20 German cities, people there were given the option to blur their houses out, and some 244,000 homes, or roughly three percent of households, were, in fact, blurred. Reaction was so vehemently negative that in April, Google announced that it would abandon plans to expand Germany’s Street View program.
Reporter Michael Bernstein examined the issue from Germany’s streets last summer. It was a great piece, so we'll replay that now.
A ponytailed teacher dressed in black stands in front of a classroom of tenth graders in the small central German city of Mainz.
He asks to look up their names online, discusses their social networking habits and directs them to an ominous-looking website called Whattheinternetknowsaboutyou.com. This is Internet privacy education, a growing trend in Germany, and, at least in this classroom, the lesson seems to be taking. Do you speak English a little bit?
A little bit.
What’s your name?
It’s ummm – it’s private.
In a country where hanging out in the park naked is a weekend pastime, Germany has recently made international headlines for its virtual prudishness. American tech companies are under close scrutiny. Facebook was threatened with fines if it didn't tighten its privacy controls. Apple’s iPhone 4 raised concerns over collection of user data. And then, of course, there was that enormous brouhaha over Google Street View.
[MUSIC/CORRESPONDENTS SPEAKING IN GERMAN]
What makes Germany particularly important for these companies is its size and wealth. With 82 million people, it has the largest economy in Europe. But Germans care more than most about what happens to their data.
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This may sound like your run-of-the-mill Berlin rave, but it’s actually the Freedom Not Fear demonstration. Thousands of people come together every year to protest government and corporate surveillance online. Protestors carry signs saying things like “1984 is Now” and “Keep Your Hands Off My Data.” Carolyn Geller was among the marchers.
We have a feeling that we are watched from everywhere. We just want to express that we don't say yes to that. It’s like this ominous thing and you, you don't know really what is done with it.
Germany’s data protection movement has had a storied history. In the 80s there was a public outcry when the West German government tried to take a census. Many citizens felt like it was too intrusive, and sued. Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled the census was unconstitutional because it violated the right to informational self-determination.
The decision was based on the belief that people are not free unless they know that data from one part of their life won't leak into another.
As I'm sitting here, I'm talking to you as a scientist, but at the same time I'm a tango dancer.
Law professor and tango dancer Garrett Arung is an example of a man who doesn't want his lives to intermingle.
If I'm going tango dancing, people may be frightened if they know that I'm a lawyer; people tend to not like that. So I have a personal interest to separate these two roles, you know, and so, so this is one example of reasoning which the court tried to build into the judgment.
Aware of the court’s dim view of privacy intrusions, when Google announced Street View’s national rollout it not only gave Germans the right to opt their homes and businesses out, but it also launched a massive media campaign to assure the public that other privacy controls, like the blurring out of faces and license plates, are also part of Street View. Still, recent surveys have found that anywhere from 16 to more than 50 percent of people don't want their homes on the service. Google Germany spokesman, Kay Oberbeck.
Definitely, one of the reasons we see why privacy is really a sensitive topic is the history of two totalitarian regimes here in Germany.
The Nazi regime was notorious for scrupulous data collection. And the Stasi, the East German secret police, was so pervasive that some estimate that it ultimately involved one-sixth of the population. But for many Germans, the concern has less to do with the totalitarian past and more to do with their socioeconomic future. Berlin Data Protection and Freedom of Information Commissioner Alexander Dix should know. He fields many calls from Germans angry about Street View.
I can perfectly understand people who say, I do object to it and I want to have a right to prevent Street View publishing such pictures, because the house, the car in front of the house or the way in which I keep my front garden orderly or disorderly is something which tells something about me. Employers may be looking at the vicinity in which you live. Banks may be looking at this information in order to score your credit application to decide whether you will be likely to repay your debts.
In an Italian restaurant in a quiet Hamburg neighborhood, a group of apartment house tenants gather to discuss whether to blur their building on Google Street View.
[MAN SPEAKING IN GERMAN]
MICHAEL BERNSTEIN [INTERPRETING]:
The apartment is my private sphere and I know that it is a safe room for me where I can behave as I want to without thinking about outside influences. Perhaps Google Street View takes that from me.
[WOMAN SPEAKING IN GERMAN]
Why aren't the Americans worried? From an American perspective, it’s of course somehow logical to say, why are you thinking about it so much? But for me, this also raises the question of why they aren't thinking about it.
Germans tend to understand their privacy interests very different from the way Americans understand their privacy interests. The concept of privacy that we find in Europe has to do with the protection and control of one’s image.
Yale Law School Professor James Whitman says this idea has roots in Europe’s legacy of dueling. When private details went public in the past, nobles challenged the leaker to a duel with a sword or pistol. An invasion of privacy, after all, was an attack on one’s honor. Today in Germany, weapons have been replaced by strict privacy laws.
And while many Germans may think the laws were made in reaction to their totalitarian past, in fact, Whitman says, quite the contrary.
The Nazis insisted on privacy in the German sense – every member of the national community had a right to dignity, including members of the lowest social status. The fact the fascists made this promise belonged to their competition with Communist movements. What the Nazis were saying was that where they would not redistribute wealth, they would nevertheless redistribute honor.
Of course, this was done at the cost of persons whose honor was systemically destroyed by the Nazis in the most horrific way imaginable.
Nevertheless, there’s a paradox. Ordinary low status Germans acquired a right to protection of their personal honor during the Nazi period that they had barely enjoyed before the Nazi period, and this has continued down to this day.
Joachim Savelsberg, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, says German privacy concerns may also have to do with the country’s Prussian roots.
In Prussia, being very much influenced by Lutheran thought, with the two-kingdom theory, there’s the world of public life - of the state, of markets - and then there’s the private sphere where friendship, forgiveness, cozy relationships predominate.
Maybe this separation explains Germany’s fondness for high hedges and thick drapes whereas America is arguably more influenced by its Calvinist tradition.
And indeed in Calvinism there was not this separation between private sphere and public life because the individual was someone whose every move was observed by God and who could not ever hide between a thick hedge. There was no protection against that big brother called God.
But today, it’s the littler brothers that are worrying Germany. And it’s not just American tech companies. For instance, one man is planning to do a crowd-sourcing project to take and post a picture of every building that’s been blurred on the Street View map. Since there’s no specific law that prohibits taking pictures of houses from the sidewalk, there’s very little stopping him. Curbing anarchy on the Net is hard.
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In front of the Brandenburg Gate, a lone saxophone is right on tune. Germany wants to do technology its own way. It wants innovations with limitations. But ultimately, even in Germany, the market will probably win out. Facebook, Apple and Google Search are all very popular. A German kid standing nearby tells me why he likes Street View.
Some people can't fly to New York, and you can see the streets in New York - and that’s cool.
Exactly, it’s cool. In fact, Germans of all ages seem to love looking at the streets of other countries, which means they're very much in tune with at least one popular American notion, known in the United States as “NIMBY” – we love what you’re doing, only not in my backyard. For On the Media, I'm Michael Bernstein.