Mohan Murti(The author is former Europe Director, CII and lives in Cologne, Germany)
Google's Street View has run into firm opposition in Germany over privacy concerns.
Germans have an awkward, clumsy gawking problem. It started during communism in East Germany when millions were reporting to the secret police, or Stasi, on movements of their neighbours.
It is therefore discernible that even Stefanie Buehler, the Dresden-based sculptor with her striking sculpture Die Nachbarin (The Neighbor), portrays an aged woman staring from a lace-curtained window with huge, unmoving eyes — ghostly, creepy and strange, it sends a shock up your spine.
While Germans may have a reputation for staring at people, they hate it when the favour is returned. Those wishing to peer into German front yards are often disappointed. In cities and towns across the country, tall fences and dense hedges have long been preferred as way to ward off curious, snooping, prying eyes.
For Google Street View, of course, such barriers are but, a trivial exasperation. In gathering photographic data for the Internet service Street View, the company simply installed cameras on car-mounted masts some 2.7 meters (just over eight feet) off the ground — high enough to peer into most domestic citadels. And now, at least over hundred thousand Germans — possibly more, have registered online to have their homes made unrecognisable.
Street View is an online service by US Internet giant Google that allows users to track, shadow, street-level, panoramic pictures of major cities — a kind of “virtual tour”. The pictures are taken by cameras mounted on cars that drive around the city. Google plans to put Street View online for 20 major German cities by the end of the year. Google's camera-equipped Street View cars have already been traversing Germany for the past few years. Zillions of images of German streets and edifices have taken by Google's special image capturing cars, and they have been safely stocked on the Internet giant's servers.
But now these pictures are to go online — and the outcry in Germany for the past few months have been humungous. While the service is available in many other countries, it has run into firm opposition in Germany over privacy concerns, forcing Google to offer an “opt-out” system, which let home owners and renters to demand that their building be blurred out.
Meanwhile, the German Government is weighing new laws on online data protection. Evidently within Europe, Germany is not the only country that has a problem with Street View. The project was criticised in Austria, the Netherlands, Nordic countries and Switzerland — where privacy and data protection laws are far stricter than in the US.
Strict Privacy Laws
Meanwhile, Google Street View is already available for other parts of Europe, allowing a user to take a virtual tour of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris or, London's Oxford Street. The street-view image allows a 360-degree view of homes, front yards, cars, people and whatever other objects were captured when the camera-equipped cars dispatched by Google travelled through the area.
Another reason for the German angst is that Europe lacks a sensible legal framework and an agreement that ensures that European data protection standards can be maintained even if companies process and keep EU-based data abroad.
While in theory the International Safe Harbour Privacy Principles have existed for nearly ten years, in practice these are hollow and meaningless.
The German federal government is dealing with the surveying and use of geo data. But Germany is also preparing for the future when we may not only be dealing with camera-equipped cars, but with satellites and drones that map cities and communities. Already, Germans are deeply engaged with questions such as: To what degree should private companies be allowed to zoom into our day-to-day lives?
Will the photos be undeletable and available for eternity on the Internet, or will there be an expiration date? Or will there even be an “eraser” for the Web? Germany is to soon reform the country's data protection law. The current right to data protection is being adapted for the rapidly evolving digital world.
The Internet is a grand creation. It has transformed the way information is swapped, brought far-flung friends together, and made possible for many people to work from home. But the Internet is also an exasperating, irksome pest because it constantly throws up new challenges for its users and the lawmakers who want to protect their electorate.
For instance, 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 a swimming pool, massage corner, or temple in the garden of your new beach-front home?
Nevertheless, we must give full credit to the readily downloadable satellite images — it takes just a few clicks to find out whether the building you are looking at to make your home is really right by the sea or actually next to a slum dwelling or, sewage treatment plant.
While Google Street View is still harmless, in India, the Home Ministry, IT Department and consumer protection experts need to start a nation-wide discussion, quickly.
Also, its time Indian lawmakers and media attention is focussed on integrating Indian laws with international rules for online privacy. Incidentally, we all know that there are satellites in the sky and Google has a ‘zoom in' facility for every house. Odds-on, they already got a picture of us sunbathing.