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Google "removes" German residences from Street View by request (2010)

Summary: Google's Street View is a powerful mapping tool that allows users to visit places they'll possibly never be able to visit and allows local users to see homes and businesses they're trying to locate.

But Google's Street View hasn't been warmly welcomed everywhere. In Germany -- a country with a long history of pervasive surveillance by government agencies -- Google’s mapping project hit a roadblock. In an effort to comply with German privacy laws, Google worked with data protection authorities to ensure all requirements were met before its cars and cameras hit the road.

Restrictions on data collection have resulted in Germany being one of the least-mapped countries in Europe.

After meeting with considerable public opposition to Google's street mapping, Google allowed residents to opt out. This resulted in opted-out locations being blurred in Street View, providing owners with more privacy inside Street View than they enjoyed outside it.

Decisions to be made by Google:

  • Should the normal lack of an expectation of privacy in publicly-viewable areas override local restrictions on data-gathering?
  • Is an opt-out plan cost effective (as compared to simply not mapping at all in restricted areas)?
  • Do "holes" in map coverage increase risks to drivers and travelers? 
  • Is there a possibility the opt-out function could be abused by trolls and/or opponents of Google's Street View project?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Does following local privacy laws possibly make Google's Street View less useful than competing products that may not follow laws or that receive more deference from local authorities?
  • Is the mapping project likely to run into greater resistance in the future, given world legislators' ongoing concerns with lax privacy laws?
  • Could Google be considered culpable for harm resulting from incomplete maps, especially when coupled with Google's built-in live navigation software?
  • What tools does Google have at its disposal to push back against legal restrictions?

Resolution: Given the chance to opt out, most Germans chose not to. According to Google, less than 3% of affected households asked Google to blur their residences, resulting in a little more than 244,000 blurred houses in Street View.

The opt-out program also led to an unfortunate, unforeseen, and completely unintended consequence. A small group of rogue "transparency advocates" sought out "blurred" houses and egged them. Some of those who opted out were also treated to handwritten notes informing them that Google was "cool." Very little actual damage was done.

Despite the early opposition -- which resulted in Google shutting down its attempted mapping of Germany in 2011 -- Google has taken a second run at the country and its resistance to the Street View project. Its site lists a large number of German cities and towns that have recently been mapped by Google during its latest attempt, which began in July 2020 and will wrap up early next year.

Written by The Copia Institute, December 2020

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