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Germany vs. Google, Round 2

Germany vs. Google, Round 2
A closed circuit television surveillance camera stands in front of Google China's headquarters in Beijing on June 30, 2010. China is threatening to revoke Google's China business license over the company's decision to redirect Chinese traffic to computer in Hong Kong that are now governed by the communist government's censorship practices. UPI/Stephen Shaver | License Photo

BERLIN, Aug. 17 (UPI) -- German data-protection officials said they will take on a big enemy: Google Inc., which has announced plans to launch its Street View service in 20 German cities by the end of this year.

The people at Google are known to be smart. Their plans for the Street View mapping service, which features street-level photographs of public and private buildings, drew significant opposition in Germany when it was first unveiled this year.

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Things became even worse when Google admitted in May that it had collected private data sent from unprotected wireless networks while taking photos for its Street View service. Apparently, the cars were loaded with equipment able to store the wireless data -- including passwords and sensitive private information. Google apologized, saying that the storing was an accident, but politicians in Germany went on a rampage, well aware that ordinary Germans are almost obsessive about the country's stringent privacy laws.

The company then decided to lay low. That is until last week -- and this was when the smartness shone through.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and most of the Cabinet ministers were on holiday when Google announced Aug. 10 that its Street View service would go live in 20 cities -- among them Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt -- before year's end.

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Google said it had resolved a dispute with the German government, which had requested that the company enable homeowners to have their property removed from the service. An online objection tool would be live within a week, Google said, adding, however, that the tool would take requests only until mid-September.

Johannes Caspar, data-protection regulator of Hamburg, wasn't amused.

He said the quick introduction of the objection tool in the middle of the summer holidays and the company's refusal to have a telephone information hotline ready "create doubts about Google's interests in a simple and user-friendly implementation."

Google has since tried to appease users, vowing that Street View would benefit, and not hurt them. The service is live in around 20 countries, and in many of them, it has proven popular.

The problem is that the German battlefield is just one of several.

Google's Street View service has come under scrutiny from data-protection regulators in Spain, France, Italy, the Czech Republic and South Korea, where police last week raided the company's Seoul office as part of an investigation into the service.

No matter how the conflicts conclude in these countries, they're yet another reminder that governments across the globe need to adapt their privacy laws to the digital age.

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