Germany debating privacy with Google and peers

BERLIN (Reuters) - German officials met internet firms on Monday to try to reconcile Germany’s strict data protection rules with programs like Google’s “Street View” mapping system, as calls for regulation intensify.

Phillipp Schindler, IT firm Google's north and central Europe head, attends a geo-data conference in Berlin, September 20, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner, who has clashed with social networking site Facebook over its handling of user data, told a newspaper she expected tougher legislation to rein in some ambitions of Google, the world’s No. 1 search engine.

“We must legally regulate the collection and use of geographic image data,” she told Tagesspiegel daily, adding that she felt companies could not be left to regulate themselves.

That echoed the view of hundreds of thousands of Germans who have requested that their homes be kept out of Google’s service, which uses fleets of cars equipped with cameras to take panoramic pictures of cities for its online atlas.

The German government has been critical of Street View and said it will scrutinize Google’s promise to respect privacy requests by letting people stay out of the project. Germans have until October 15 to apply for an opt-out.

However, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, host of the meeting which Google attended, gave a brighter outlook for the company’s chances of continuing the project, saying an outright ban of the recordings should not be expected.

“A general right to object to the publication of images taken from the side or from above will not go through,” he told broadcaster ZDF on Monday. He said he considered the project to be sensible as long as it kept some data private.

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“If specific personal profiles are created, or at least distributed and published, then a red line is crossed,” he said. “That we must regulate with a ban, a right to delete and if necessary a right to claim damages.”

An afternoon news conference was slated after the meeting. Google plans to add Germany’s 20 largest cities to Street View by the end of 2010, joining 23 countries already included. The U.S. company said human faces and car license plates would be electronically blurred.

Launched in 2007, Street View allows users to see street scenes on Google Maps and take virtual “walks.”

In Germany, where the debate on surveillance is tinged with memories of the role played by the Nazis’ Gestapo and the East German Stasi secret police, doubts have been raised about the transparency of the project, which Google calls a helpful tool.

Critics say it invites abuse. They argue that thieves could use it to identify targets, security firms could use it to pitch sales, job seekers might find their homes scrutinized by employers and banks could inspect the homes of loan applicants.

De Maiziere said he expected the government to propose a law addressing the matter by this winter.

Reporting by Brian Rohan; Editing by Mark Heinrich