Why Germans Want out of Google's Street View

From next week, German households have four weeks to request to be deleted from Google's mapping service Street View; and there are signs that many of them will, amid worries about privacy and still-fresh memories of secret police surveillance.

Reichstag Parliment building, Berlin, Germany
Martin Child | Photodisc | Getty Images
Reichstag Parliment building, Berlin, Germany

This timeframe might be extended to six weeks in order to obey to European data protection law.

"I am expecting that Google will accept the European rules of the game," European Union Legal Affairs Commissioner Viviane Reding told German tabloid Bild.

Earlier this week, Google announced in a surprise move that it plans to launch Street View in 20 German cities by the end of 2010, catching many German politicians off-guard as they are on holiday.

Unlike the British, accustomed to the presence of closed-circuit TV at every street corner, the Germans still remember past traumas, when omnipresent states were snooping into their private lives.

For those in eastern Germany, the secret police Stasi spied on every single aspect of private life and a well-known joke dating back to the years of communism runs like this: "Why, despite all the shortages, is toilet paper in eastern Germany two-ply? Because they have to send a copy of everything they do to Russia."

Before that, the Hitler regime, tracking down Jewish people, communists and enemies of the state wherever they were living or hiding, was even more of a trauma.

So now that Google's Street View wants to show images of German streets for everybody to see on the internet, politicians from all parties are up in arms against it.

"I will use my right to object against having pictures of my house and my garden being published," said Thomas Oppermann, the leader of the parliamentary group of the Social Democrats. "What Google is planning goes too far and too fast."

A member of the Green Party, Hans-Christian Stroebele, told the Spiegel newspaper pretty much the same thing: "I am against Google Street View and will use my right to have my house deleted."

Wanting out in Droves

Gisela Piltz, the data security expert of the Liberals (FDP) has already acted. "I already objected weeks ago, as I want to decide on my own who knows what of my life," Piltz said.

A high number of households have written letters and emails to Google to have their homes, gardens and cars deleted from the mapping system, sources close to the Ministry for Consumer Protection said.

How many households will opt out, only Google knows, to the discontent of the government.

"It is very disappointing that Google does not disclose the figures. That does not add to transparency," a Ministry spokesman said.

A Google spokesman told CNBC the company could not offer the exact number of Germans who requested to be removed from Street View as it was still compiling the data.

The German press is divided on the topic. Conservative newspaper FAZ is asking the question whether Google is the state, as it acts like the government's land surveying office by filming streets and houses across the country.

The FAZ goes on commenting that even the SED (the former socialist party in the former eastern Germany) would have loved to have known that much about their citizens.

On the other hand, the influential weekly Spiegel says the whole outcry is just not fitting into modern times, as we already live in an open and interlinked world and that photographs of houses and gardens don't really violate any privacy laws.

The Ministry for Consumer Protection nevertheless takes the issue very seriously.

"Google has promised that only when all requests for deletions are executed, Street View will start," Ilse Aigner, Consumer Protection Minister, said.

And the German government is thinking about a new law on data protection. "After the summer break, we need to come up with a general rule," the spokesman of consumer protection affairs of the parliamentary group of the conservatives Peter Bleser told Handelsblatt.