BERLIN – Google said Tuesday it would allow Germans to block out their homes on its disputed Street View navigation service ahead of its launch in the country this year but privacy watchdogs were still not happy.
The move is part of an effort to placate German authorities, who have serious concerns about the service that allows users to view online panoramic still photos at street level taken using specially equipped vehicles.
"Google will roll out Street View for the 20 biggest German cities by the end of the year," the company said in a statement, meaning Germany will join the list of 23 countries featured on Street View.
The service, launched in the United States in 2007, allows users to view street scenes on Google Maps and "walk" through cities such as New York, Paris or Hong Kong on their computers or smartphones.
Uniquely for Germany, however, Google will launch a campaign Wednesday informing citizens concerned about safety or privacy how they can have pictures of their homes or businesses pixelled out before they are published.
"Renters or owners can apply to have their building made unrecognisable before the pictures are published online" from next week, the company said.
Google already blocks out people's faces and car number plates in the other countries featured on Street View and will also do so in Germany.
In April, Consumer Affairs Minister Ilse Aigner and Google reached an agreement after a lengthy dispute under which the company would only provide Street View images from Germany after it had addressed privacy concerns.
Aigner, a fierce defender of privacy rights online, made headlines in June when said she would delete her Facebook profile over data protection issues.
She welcomed Google's concessions as a victory for her hard-line stance with the company.
"My demands and the public debate about Google publishing information about homes and property on the Internet have borne fruit," her ministry said in a statement.
Germany is especially sensitive to privacy issues due to grievous abuses by the Nazis and East German communists in the past and has some of the world's toughest laws on data protection.
Google's announcement failed to silence the most vocal critics, who said the opt-out policy was far too complicated.
"I was stunned to hear last Thursday that the tool is to be launched from next week," said Johannes Caspar, the commissioner for data protection and freedom of information in Hamburg, where Google's German unit is based.
"My concerns about implementing these complex opt-out proceedings were unfortunately not respected."
He noted that Google was launching the campaign when many Germans are still away on their summer holidays and was limiting it to four weeks, after which photographs can only be pulled from the Web after they have been published.
Caspar, who was involved in the initial negotiations with the company, said he had sent a letter to Google laying out his concerns and calling for a telephone hotline to answer citizens' questions about Street View.
He said he also expected a more complete explanation of what Google would do with the personal data of those who filed complaints.
"Google is missing an opportunity to regain lost trust with a citizen-friendly implementation of its pledges," said Caspar.
The company noted, however, that Germans were already among its most avid users of Street View when making their travel plans abroad, with nearly one million clicks per day.
© AFP 2013