Germany Seeks Privacy Code For Online Mapping

The government of Germany has called on Google Inc. and other providers of online navigation services to create a set of voluntary data protection guidelines for services such as Google’s “Street View” by the end of the year.

Failure to do so would result in the imposition of new market regulations to protect consumers, said Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Monday.

De Maizier’s comments came after a five-hour meeting with Internet executives, Germany’s federal justice, consumer protection ministers and various data protection authorities.

“We need a charter guarding private geographical data and we need it drafted… by December 7,” the AFP quoted de Maiziere as saying.

“A charter could, and I mean could, make regulation superfluous,” he told reporters during a press conference.

Berlin had called the meeting following public outrage over Google’s plan to display images from 20 German cities as part of its Street View online mapping service.

Launched in 2007, the service includes panoramic images from scores of cities throughout the world taken at street level by vehicles with specialized cameras.

Due to Germany’s history of privacy abuses under both the Nazi and communist governments, the nation is particularly sensitive to potential privacy violations.

In response to Germany’s strong public protest, Google has made the country the only one in which citizens can prevent images of their homes or businesses from being displayed on Street View.

Hundreds of thousands of people have already opted out ahead of an October 15 deadline, the AFP news agency reported, citing media reports that Google would neither confirm nor deny.

“At this stage it is not possible to give an accurate number of opt-outs” a Google spokesperson told BBC News.

“As expected, due to the wide media coverage and our own information campaign the number of letters we have received has increased in recent weeks.”

However, Germany’s government cautioned that such steps were inadequate, and threatened new legislation to soothe security and privacy concerns.

De Maiziere said any new, voluntary guidelines should be worked out in collaboration with data protection authorities, and that the online mapping service providers should allow users to clearly see how their privacy rights are affected by such services.

However, De Maiziere fell short of endorsing calls from some consumer advocates for an “opt in” policy.

“We need geo-services for environmental policy, preventing natural disasters, searching for a home, planning our holidays — all of that must still be possible in the future,” De Maiziere said.

Instead, he would support legislation defining “red lines that must not be crossed.” 

Among other things, this would guarantee that users’ whereabouts are not exposed online, he said.

However, such a law would not affect the firms attending Monday’s meeting based on the services they provide today.

Google appeared to embrace the opportunity to help develop the new rules.

The Internet search giant said it would “welcome the proposal for self-regulation,” and was “happy to contribute to it in a constructive way.”

“Online mapping and geographical tools are becoming ever more important for citizens, authorities and companies – a trend which is only set to increase through the tremendous growth of the mobile Internet,” a Google spokesperson told BBC News.

“Any future legislation must make sure that in addition to the requirements of data protection, the development of innovative business opportunities and modern technology are allowed to flourish.”

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