Google Street View in Germany

In March 2011, a Berlin court ruled that Google Street View was not illegal after a private citizen filed a lawsuit, claiming the technology was an infringement of her property and privacy rights. Sebastian Huempfer looks at the case.

The case

Google announced in May 2009 that it would expand Street View, its street-level imaging service, to 20 major cities in Germany. Following public and political pressure, Google worked with German authorities and gave households the chance to opt out and have images of their properties blurred. When the service was launched, 244,000 German households had opted out. The opt-out process was supervised by the Technical Inspection Agency, an organisation, which certifies the safety of consumer products in Germany.

In March 2011, a Berlin court decided that Google Street View was not illegal. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a private citizen who had argued that her property and privacy rights could potentially be violated by Google Street View. She had argued that the cameras, mounted atop poles up to three metres high, allowed Google to take photos of her property, despite her house being shielded by a two metre-high hedge. Google has argued that there are no legal barriers for its service in Germany.

By the end of 2011, public concern and debate had largely subsided. Only 80,000 households opted out of Microsoft’s Bing Streetside. According to Google, Germans are amongst the heaviest users of Street View. After the introduction of Street View, usage of Google Maps rose by 25%. However, Google did not expand its service in Germany beyond the initial 20 cities, and has not updated photos of existing (and in some cases no-longer-existing) buildings since 2008.

Author opinion

Principle 8 highlights that we are all entitled to a private life and should accept such scrutiny as is in the public interest. In this case, the right of the individuals to protect their privacy has been upheld, and I would agree with those who argue that this was entirely appropriate. Google Street View imposes a level of scrutiny on each citizen that is not warranted by the public interest, given that, as some have argued, the images might be used in the future to profile the inhabitants.

In our second principle, we have argued that we must defend the internet against illegitimate encroachments. In this case, the public demanded a legitimate encroachment, and the state complied. And so it should, in a democratic state. We ought to decide, collectively, whether we want a public good like Google Street View, and no society, democratic or otherwise, has been given this choice.

Finally, what is sometimes overlooked is that Google Street View is a cash-cow. If Google collects images, and derives a profit from them, should those whose property is photographed not be entitled to a share of the profits?

- Sebastian Huempfer

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Comments (2)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Two comments from Viktor-Mayer Schoenberger at our event “Does Facebook Know To Much?:

    — Many of those who objected did so because they feared that criminals would use Street View to find promising targets for burglaries.

    — VMS argued that by obscuring your house, you send a signal that you are a promising target because you have something to hide. Hence, his important point is that EVEN IF YOU OPTED OUT, you were still forced to send a message to users of Street View – even if it’s just “I don’t like this”. Is this justifiable?

    I would still argue that the right to opt out is a reasonable and sufficient concession. Given that 250 000 people opted out, I don’t think any of them sent a clear signal of any kind – there are just too many different but conceivable motives: some opted out because of burglars, some because they don’t want to be profiled, some because they built fences in the real world and thus want them online as well, and so on.

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