How Germans Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Google Street View

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christian Charisius / Reuters

Cars with mounted cameras used for Google Street View are on display at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover on March 2, 2010

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung.

MUNICH — The Silicon Valley "spy" opened shop in Germany a year ago to a firestorm of controversy. It was last November when Google launched its panoramic Street View service of 20 German cities, from Leipzig to Stuttgart. In the lead-up, the U.S. company's project was not only met with mistrust but sometimes also hysterical debates that went on for months, touching on everything from who had rights to building facades to how high fencing needed to be to ensure privacy.

Altogether, the questions and concerns amounted to an attempt by Germans to work out a definition of the private sphere in the digital age. The result of that debate was that 245,000 people opposed having their home publicly on view, and substantial portions of some well-to-do areas are simply screened out of the German version of Google Street View.

But if Google were to launch the project again now, the picture might look very different. Serial break-ins that some thought would be a result of the service did not materialize. Nor, in the end, did people whose houses and apartments are pictured by the service protest much about having their private residences on display for the whole world to see.

The software is apparently not of interest to wrongdoers and voyeurs. It is, however, popular among people trying to determine if they want to visit an area or buy or rent a home there. Google spokeswoman Lena Wagner said that in Germany, the number of visits to Google Maps, into which Google Street View is integrated, went up 25% during the past year.

Hamburg's Johannes Caspar, the data protection head responsible for making it possible for Germans to oppose Google Street View, said he was happy with the service. "The Google camera car was, for many people, a symbol of a digital world trying to appropriate the analog world," said Caspar. Giving people the possibility of opposing the service, he explained, "diffused the situation and helped Street View gain acceptance."

Another indication of acceptance is that when Microsoft announced it would be photographing German streets for Bing Maps Streetside, its Street View clone, only 80,000 people opposed. "Google Street View did the pioneering work, and now people know what the pictures look like when they're published," said Caspar.

In the meantime, according to the Google spokeswoman Wagner, some who originally opposed having their property photographed now want their homes included in the service. Too late. Google promised German data-protection authorities it would make all opposed imagery unrecognizable.

For now, Google has no plans to further develop the German Street View to include other cities, the company said. If its camera cars were seen on the streets of Germany this year, it was to update Google Maps and route planning.

A Virtual Walk in the Park
In other countries, however, Google is making increased amounts of information available via its Street View. For example, the service enables users to take virtual walks in six parks from Madrid to Tokyo. Google sent camera persons out on bikes to get the footage.

In California, there's a test program that makes it possible for users to tour the inside of some shops and restaurants. The idea behind this is that potential clients can check out the vibe and the selection on-screen before deciding whether they want to go to a place. Meanwhile, the virtual tours could enhance the Google Ads of the establishments by giving clients more information. Google could eventually offer online table reservations or product orders.

Scenarios such as these don't look realistic for Germany, at least not in the foreseeable future. In fact, because the images date back to 2008, many of the buildings on the German Street View no longer exist. A few examples are Berlin's Palace of the Republic or Cologne's City Archives. In some ways, the much feared "spy" from Silicon Valley has become a picture album for virtual visitors taking a nostalgia tour.

Also from Worldcrunch:

How Assad's Fall in Syria Could Overturn the Middle East Chessboard
— Le Monde

The Khodorkovsky Documentary Nobody in Russia Wants to Show
— Kommersant

Ten Reasons Why the Euro Was a Dumb Idea
— Die Welt