Germans have long harbored an obsession about protecting privacy, with memories of Nazi-era denouncements of neighbors and East German secret police snooping still alive. Now they have found a new target for their fears: Google "Street View."
Under strong government pressure, the Internet giant made Germany the only country where people can request to have images of their homes deleted from the project before it goes online in November, along with other concessions.
It has all stirred debate about how to define and defend privacy in the digital age and revealed a yawning generational divide between those old enough to recall invasive past regimes and those who have grown up with the Internet.
"There is a fear of becoming a 'See-through Citizen' in a totalitarian surveillance state," said Jesko Kaltenbaek, a professor of psychology at Berlin's Freie University.
"Both under the Nazis and in the former East Germany, the exact knowledge of citizens' lives served as a decisive instrument of power for government leaders."
That concern lies at the heart of the current debate, where politicians have been criticizing Google for allegedly trampling the rights of citizens who are disturbed by the idea that "Street View" might help strangers locate them in their homes.
Germany's Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner has repeated called for Google to reveal more about the information that it holds and how it is collected.
"I expect far-reaching information to be made public, about existing measures to opt out of the program, as well as future routes of camera cars," Aigner told Spiegel Online on Thursday.
Google has responded by making rare concessions in Germany.
"We take the concerns very seriously," said Google Inc.'s European chief, Philipp Schindler in an interview Friday with Germany's mass-circulation daily Bild.
He said the Mountain View, California, company has gone out of its way to accommodate fears, working closely together with data protection authorities since 2009 to try to convince Germans to trust "Street View."
"We respect people's privacy," Schindler said. "In Germany we offer rules for 'Street View' that do not exist in any other countries. Only in Germany can you request your house be omitted before the start."
For more than a year it has been possible to send Google a written request for omission — via e-mail or the post. That privilege has not been granted to people in any of the other 23 countries where the program has been in use since its 2007 U.S. launch. They can only request an image be removed after it appears online.
On Monday, Google launched an online tool to make it easier for users to request their homes not be shown in "Street View" and three days later, the four-week window in which to fill out was doubled to eight weeks.
Despite these measures, the German government is considering new legislation aimed at addressing citizens' data protection concerns involving "Street View" and other digital mapping programs.
Oddly, while the "Street View" debate has provided the nation's leading daily newspapers with more than enough fodder throughout the otherwise slow summer months, Germans seem far less concerned about possible dangers to privacy in social networking sites such as Facebook.
And despite privacy concerns, Germans also willingly comply with regulations to register their names and addresses with local police and carry picture IDs to be shown to authorities on request.
Not everyone is convinced that "Street View" is a bad thing — a fact the company likes to underline by pointing out that hundreds of thousands of Germans use "Street View" images from other countries.
Many of those people are younger users who have grown up Internet savvy and accustomed to posting information about themselves on sites such as MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter.
"I always use Street View if I'm looking for people or stores," said student Anja Zimmermann. "Also I use it if I am bored. It's very interesting to virtually visit some cities."
"With 'Street View' Google has given Germany nothing less then the first major culture clash between those who take the Net for granted as part of their lives, and those who see societal changes brought about by the Net as an imposition, if not a threat," wrote Mario Sixtus, a video journalist, in a blog.
While the opt-out tool is meant to ease problems, it has also raised issues about possible abuse — for example, if retail opponents pose as the competition down the street to seek to have their opponent removed.
For fans of the Borussia Dortmund professional football (soccer) team, that temptation was irresistible.
A fan club from the team filled out an online request form requesting that the top-of-the line, multimillion euro (dollar) stadium of its archrival, Schalke, be wiped from the map.
Asked by Google for a description of the structure the Dortmund fans wrote: "ugly."