TagIlse Aigner

Google Streetview Germany: Worst of Both Worlds


So after seemingly endless debates, moving launch dates and massive protests by privacy groups and – worth noticing – Ilse Aigner, the minister of of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, it looks like Google just pretty silently launched Streetview in Germany. Kind of.

Kind of because it’s not the real Streetview, but a slightly different take on the original idea, based not on Google’s own photo material but on user-generated photos. Let’s have a look.

But first, let me put it in perspective briefly. While sharing many privacy concerns regarding all kinds of online services, I find Streetview to be very much not a problem at all. All faces are pixelated, and it’s the public space. I’ll side with Jeff Jarvis who says:

I argue that what is public belongs to us, the public, and efforts to reduce what’s public steals from us. Journalists should be particularly protective of what is public; so should we all.

He goes on to state that once we start prohibiting private companies from taking pictures there’s a threat we’ll start doing the same with citizens, then journalists. You get the drift. Full ack. What’s public is public. We live in a state where politicians openly demand more video surveillance and even does the occasional biometric video surveillance pilot project – in my book, that’s much, much worse.

But back to the point. Below you see a screenshot of Streetview in New York. Please note the high-quality of the pictures, and perspective of the environment as seen from the street. You can “move” along the street. It’s useful. It’s not super pretty, but it does the job, which is help you get oriented.

Google Streetview NYC Screenshot

Then look at the German flavor of Streetview (screenshot below). It’s based on user-generated photos (by ways of Panoramio), which isn’t necessarily bad, but doesn’t quite seem to work here. It’s not consistent, it’s all different perspectives, and it’s not all current photo material. Some of the photos submitted are clearly from the 80s or early 90s. Interesting, sure. Useful, not really.

Google Streeview Germany Screenshot

What’s more, since the photos are user-generated and – I’m assuming – not automatically analyzed and manipulated, the faces aren’t pixelated like the ones taken by Google themselves. In other words: Privacy is much worse, as is the overall usefulness. We get the worst of both worlds.

I’m not sure if I should applaud Google for the pluck to go with this hack; if I should congratulate privacy groups for a success (if you want to call it that) in standing up to a large corporation; or if I should lament that our minister for consumer protection just delivered the worst possible result in this conflict, which means that neither user rights (privacy) nor user needs (useful navigation services) are met.

In a way, this whole play really summarizes all that’s skewed in the odd love-hate relationship that Germany has with the web.

Full disclaimer: I’ve worked with Google before and I’m a member of the Google Internet & Society Collaboratory.