It looks like: if you are stupid, become a politician

Date: 17-08-2010
 Source: SPIEGEL
Subject: Steamrollered by Google Street View

Internet Challenges Overwhelm German Government

Google has been talking about introducing its Street View service in Germany for years. But now that the launch has officially been announced, the German government appears to have been taken by surprise.

 It’s just another example of how the authorities are struggling to meet the challenges of the Internet age. 

Maybe Carsten Schneider has curtains in the windows of his home in the eastern German city of Erfurt. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he lives in a Communist-era apartment block, maybe in a villa. If you ask him about it, Schneider gets extremely cagey. “That’s nobody’s business,” he says. “Certainly not Google’s.” The way Schneider pronounces the company name, you’d think Google was a criminal organization.

That’s why Schneider, who is the budgetary spokesmen of the center-left Social Democrats’ parliamentary group, wants to have his house blanked out when Google unveils the panoramic photos it has taken as part of its new Street View service in Germany.

Schneider may willingly grant insight into his private life on Facebook and Twitter, where he writes comments such as “Going for a run for an hour before it gets too hot,” but the parliamentarian thinks Google Street View takes openness a step too far. “I want to keep part of my life private, just like anyone else,” he says.

Pixelated Out

Schneider is one of a growing number of politicians, including Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who have announced their intention to have their apartments or houses made unrecognizable on the close-up Street View images, which Google’s specially equipped cars have collected on major roads in 20 German cities. One of the first to opt out was Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, who very publicly cancelled her Facebook account a while back — not that the gesture achieved much. Nor will Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière’s plans to amend Germany’s Data Protection Act provide a permanent solution to the problem.

The reactions by Germany’s political elite may be defiant, even angry at times. But they are really only a testament to the politicians’ own impotence. Both individual members of parliament and the relevant ministers are simply no match for the machinations of the Internet giants, who are producing a constant stream of new inventions and desires.

By the time politicians have completed their painstakingly slow debates and agreed new privacy protection measures, the online world has already come up with the next new idea. “I would never have predicted such a development,” confesses Ulrich Kelber, the Social Democrats’ deputy floor leader. “I completely underestimated the power of the media.”

Kelber is like nearly all politicians in Germany. Because they didn’t see it coming, they now appear to have been steamrollered by events. The battle between the Internet giants and the politicians could therefore become one of the defining conflicts of our age.

Time for Answers

The Internet is a great invention. It has revolutionized the way information is exchanged, brought geographically distant friends together, and enabled many people to work away from the office. But the Internet is also a nuisance because it constantly throws up new problems for its users and the politicians who want to protect their electorate. For instance, should everyone be able to read what individuals are doing in private (and with whom), simply because the social networking site Facebook fails to adequately inform its users about its privacy settings? By the same token, should the entire world know, thanks to Google Street View, what kind of curtains you have in your living-room windows or whether you have garden gnomes in front of your house?

The Internet age may be presenting politicians with some rather strange questions, but they have implications for millions of people. And it’s time the politicians came up with some answers.

A press conference in Berlin last Wednesday was a classic example of what happens when the German government is at a loss for words: Representatives of the various ministries sat on the podium, each apparently keen to outdo his or her colleagues in sheer cluelessness.

A few days earlier, Google had announced its intention to put images of German streets and individual facades online by the end of the year. It gave tenants and property owners who objected to having their house or building displayed on the Internet four weeks to opt out.

‘I Can’t Comment’

This prompted a whole host of questions from the assembled press corps: Would individual citizens be able to sue over failure to comply with their request? “I can’t speculate on that at the present time,” the Interior Ministry spokesman replied.

How could the government be sure that Google was processing all opt-out requests? “I can’t comment on individual details,” the Consumer Ministry spokeswoman replied. Could Google be forbidden from photographing governmental buildings and military installations? “I have absolutely no information about that,” the government spokesman admitted.

Two years after Google began sending specially equipped camera cars around Germany, and fully half a year after its announcement that it would launch the service “sometime this year,” the country’s political leaders are acting as if they had never heard of the plans.

Vague Fears and Lack of Understanding

Unfortunately Street View is only the latest in a series of bumbling attempts by the German government to come to grips with data-hungry companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and eBay. And once again it appears to be overwhelmed by the task of finding a legislative framework for the Internet, not least because German society is deeply divided over the issue.

Many people, particularly older ones, have a vague fear that their data will be misused. Google and its ilk are currently the topic of hot debate in local newspapers, municipal councils and regional parliaments — mostly among skeptics who simply feel uneasy about the issue.

The Web community, which mainly comprises younger people, can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Most of them consider such services a positive boon, mainly because of their practical benefits. Many people already use online services like Google Earth and Google Maps in their everyday lives, for instance when planning a vacation. Thanks to the available satellite images, it takes just a few clicks to find out whether a hotel is really right by the sea or actually next to a sewage treatment plant.

Caught between the skepticism of the one camp and the euphoria of the other, Germany’s politicians are struggling to find a position on the matter. But in so doing they are wasting valuable time when it comes to defining the boundaries that need to be set. So far, the government’s input has been limited to appeals, announcements, assurances and calls for boycotts.

Ineffective Bombast

Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner is one of Google’s main critics. She is calling on all consumers to file objections to their houses being shown on Street View. “Every single request must be accepted, no matter whether it is sent by post or e-mail,” she demands. “Until this is agreed to, the Street View service must not be allowed to go online in Germany.”

The powers-that-be have since realized how ineffective their bombast has been. When Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner told the world that she was closing her Facebook account, nobody cared. The world’s largest social network has about 10 million members in Germany — and those numbers are constantly increasing, not falling.

Aigner is now calling on all consumers to file objections to their houses being shown on Street View. “Every single request must be accepted, no matter whether it is sent by post or e-mail,” she demanded. “Until this is agreed to, the Street View service must not be allowed to go online in Germany.” The ministry expects the total number of opt-out requests that Google has already received, or will receive, to be significantly more than 200,000. So far, Google has not revealed how many requests it has received.

Aigner has also criticized the four-week period for registering objections as being too short. “A doubling of the period to eight weeks would be desirable,” she told the Tuesday edition of the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt. She also called for more transparency on Google’s part. “The whole objection process must be made more transparent,” she said. “That’s the only way that Google can win back the trust it has lost.”

Passing the Buck

No other member of the German cabinet has taken as determined a stand as Ilse Aigner — at least rhetorically speaking. And yet the problem lies not only in the opponents’ strength, but the fact that Aigner doesn’t have the final say on such matters.

At least four federal ministries in Berlin are responsible for Internet-related policy in one way or another. And now every departmental chief is shaking his or her head and passing the buck. Aigner says she has repeatedly urged the relevant ministers to draw up proposals for how to tackle the issue, but she has yet to hear anything from the Justice and Interior Ministries.

Back in January, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said that much “could be improved” and that Internet companies were “duty-bound” to increase transparency. With regard to Google in particular, she said that its services were “in urgent need of legal appraisal.” Unfortunately the findings of her appraisal are not known.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who is technically the government’s top official on data protection issues, also refused to be pinned down too quickly. “People want to use Internet services like Google Earth and Google Street View without being affected by the associated consequences,” he said. “That simply doesn’t work.”

Typically Vague

But public pressure on the minister has grown. In early July, the Bundesrat, Germany’s second chamber of parliament which represents the federal states, passed a bill to change the Data Protection Act in order to better protect personal rights online. Now de Maizière wants to amend the Data Protection Act too. “But this won’t become a specific ‘Google law,'” he says.

Last week de Maizière e-mailed fellow ministers a cabinet proposal for a government position paper he hoped they could vote on this Wednesday and then pass on to the Bundesrat. The proposal, which is worded with typical vagueness, says that the German government “is currently considering all possible courses of action required to adapt the Data Protection Act to the Internet age in general as well as in particular data protection relating to geo-information.” All references to concrete regulations are left in the subjunctive. Definitive it is not.

De Maizière says he wants the debate to be carried out in a “more sober” way. “We shouldn’t promise our citizens more than we can give them.”

To all intents and purposes, it sounds as if the politicians have already thrown in the towel.

The Web community, which mainly comprises younger people, can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Many people already use online services like Google Earth and Google Maps in their everyday lives, for instance when planning a vacation.

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