Google Streetview in Germany, some thoughts


A little while ago I wrote a little rant about the fake Streetview Google had launched in Germany, an odd Google Maps & Panoramio hybrid. Eventually that’s about to change: Google Streetview is coming to Germany for real.

And boy, are people in Germany going crazy over this.

On the one hand you have those who thing that having public spaces accessible online is a good thing (including yours truly). One the other you have those who claim that it’s the end of privacy, illegitimate commercialism by a global corporation or that it helps burglars.

These critics spread – or buy into – a hyperbole like I haven’t seen in a long time. They are, I daresay, going absolutely nuts.

Why is this important? Because there’s practically no privacy risk, the burglar argument is completely bogus (not even burglars are so stupid, and statistics show that there’s no correlation of Streetview and break-ins) – while on the other hand a service like Streeview is incredibly useful for all kinds of legitimate uses.

DW-World sums it up nicely:

“Behind all of these criticisms here in Germany is the fear that Google might be too powerful, while being too strange and intransparent,” [law professor] Hoeren told Deutsche Welle. “It’s not really about data collection, telecommunications and privacy and such.”

If you understand German, Mario Sixtus wrote a fantastic piece on the subject. His take: trying to restrict a service like Google, including giving house owners the right to have photos of their houses removed from the service, is an attack on all our rights to the public space.

I couldn’t agree more.

The fact that many media outlets and politicians chime in with the rest of the criticism (or rather, take a lead in the fear mongering) doesn’t make their claims any more substantial or legitimate. Either we protect those rights, or we’ll lose them. And I’d like to keep living in a country where everyone – yes, even large corporations – are allowed to pick up a camera, take photos of buildings* in public and share these photos online.

(*Photos of people are a different matter altogether, but that isn’t what Google is doing here.)

Full disclaimer: I’ve worked with Google before and I’m a member of the Google Internet & Society Collaboratory. I still think that Google’s new stance on Net Neutrality sucks.

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.