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Montag, 20. Juni 2011

Google Street View - Example for a Designed Conflict?

Some months ago I prepared a blogpost regarding the Google Street View discussion in Germany last year. I never published this blogpost. Now - few months later - the very "special" discussion seems so strange and to be an example for a designed conflict. So I decided to publish it despite of having no actuality.

Google Street View - A tough discussion between German bloggers and German newspapers

While reading the posts on Global Voices Online regarding the problems of introducing Google Street View in Japan I found astonishing similarities with the German discussion. But whereas the bloggers in Japan were mainly against Google Street View the German bloggers were more in favor for it.

The announcement of the introduction of Google Street View in the first half of 2010 was not scheduled in a smart way. It fell in a phase of an intensive debate about technical problems which arose as part of the photographing process for Google Street View. It was known that Google has logged wifi networks in Germany for a special location service. As a matter of fact politics wanted to regulate such activities more intensively.

The policy responses should now follow the same foot: As of Hamburg was known the data protection authorities want to prescribe transparent and clear requirements for Google's street photographs with the help of a legal initiative of the states.

After that first round of public debate regarding the wifi-issue both parties reached nevertheless a consensual committment.

Today, Ilse Aigner (Minister for Consumer Protection) met with representatives of the search giant in Berlin. She could be assured that the service in this country only starts when the caveat of the German citizens against Google Street View are all discharged. This means, among other things, that apartments, houses and gardens covered by the caveat all have to be completely  anonymous on Google Street View.

Further more the author of this same blogpost also emphasized and hoped that Google Street View will be introduced in a short term:

Then we shall now hope that the theater is finally over and we can look forward getting this Google service in our country.

And in the end (being the beginning of August) Google in fact announced the new Service for Germany for the end of the year 2010.

We are therefore pleased to bring you the benefits of Street View closer! By the end of this year we will add the 20 largest cities in Germany to the list of the 23 countries for which Street View is already available. The 20 cities are: Berlin, Bielefeld, Bochum, Bonn, Bremen, Dortmund, Dresden, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Essen, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Hannover, Cologne, Leipzig, Mannheim, Munich, Nürnberg, Stuttgart and Wuppertal.

The Google announcement was accompanied by neutral articles on the most important german it-news-webpage “heise.de”.

Researchers at the University of California in  San Diego (UCSD) want to automate the subsequent cleanup of the street views with the help of software. This approach protects the privacy of passers-by. At the same time it delivers a better picture, said Arturo Flores, computer science student in the Artificial Intelligence group of the UCSD

The well known blog Basicthinking , mainly reporting about technical issues, supported the announcement with a short and warm welcome.


It was a little surprising that the best known weekly newspaper for the political discussion in Germany - DIE ZEIT - commented the Google service very positively. This newspaper spoke in most reports in the last years with a more critical voice when it comes to internet and social media. So it was even more interesting to read the comment about the freedom of the people who wanted to use the Google service for their own purpose.

At the same time I want that there are spaces available to everyone which cannot be restricted in any way by someone. For this is freedom. And this freedom shall also be available in the net.

In opposition to that positive interpretation of the service there was a really huge mass of critics in the traditional mass media. As a typical example serves this article from the German news magazine “Focus”:

Because the resistance to Street View is massive: data protection institutions and politicians, led by the Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner (CSU), see in the street photos a possible breach of privacy for Germans. Right from the start Google collects and stores without being asked all the buildings, cars and people who are in the respective road in that moment. For many, this is already an Orwellian surveillance scenario.

The public debate developed very dynamically so that the Minister of the Interior asked the actors to be more reluctant. As the responsible minister for net issues he was in charge to formulate new guidelines for a sustainable German net policy. So it was consequent to decline a special “Lex Google”.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière advised in the heated debate to serenity. He refused a special law for the Street View service.

The debate was becoming very absurd. Basicthinking and other blogs emphasize the problem of producing a counter productive image of Germany in other countries.

Since weeks an increasingly absurd debate about Google Street View let Germany freeze. Concerned citizens are shooted by the press right before that house, they did not want to see displayed on Google. Politicians announced to enter an objection against the image of their home on Google. And the states wanted to strengthen data protection with a Lex Google further on.

In the magazine Stern you can see an example of a quite panic discussion in the mass media.

Wrong time, wrong place - and one is caught

At the end most of the actors were tired of discussing this issue again and again. So Netzpolitik recommended to do what you thought is the right choice.

Do what you think is right. On Heise Online and Spiegel Online, there are more details for the procedure. Who wants to apply for pixelation in a classic way by a letter can get matching sample letters from the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection.

A very ironic view could be seen on Spiegelfechter:

What are the Germans actually afraid of? So afraid that the message that Google had made its list for homeowners and tenants online, even became a top story in today's radio and TV news? An entire nation seems to have sunk into collective summer paranoia. The pixel-focused Google opponents differentiated on closer examination not so much from the natives, who once thought, that with a photograph recording they would lost their souls.

We got very impressive reactions from other countries and well known bloggers around the world. But it was not that type of feedback which is useful for a country at the beginning of the net age. So Jeff Jarvis asked us:

What is it that makes Germans go bonkers about Google? Is it media trying to gain an advantage against their competitor?

Heise which was a neutral player in the debate finished the summer holiday discussion with this comment:

So let's save the human rights of bricks and cement. We pixelize each facade which is visible for citizens and we ensure that it will be not longer allowed to upload a vacation photo into the Internet without government approval. However, it might be then, that no one takes the privacy concerns of Germany seriously anymore.

Let me conclude with a blog post which is only at first sight funny. On second sight it is tragic because it shows the challenge to discuss such an net issue with the citizens which are not familiar with the potential of the net. These four senior citizens are now internationally famous:

Thus, these four seniors, which have maybe not sufficient knowledge of the net, wanted to serve the printmedia to advocate against Google Street View. And this was done with the argument not to be presented by name and house on the Internet by Google Street View. At first glance, this seems to be funny, at second glance, it shows the tragedy of the whole debate.

What does this discussion mean regarding the importance and the relationship between traditional media and the bloggers in Germany. From my point of view we are still only at the beginning of a transformation process which will end in a new relationship between these two parts or actors of such a public debate. We need the German bloggers for having an alternative perspective on this societal issues.