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Google Street View Ruffles European Feathers

Whether a government or a private company gathers data, Europeans get nervous.

Recent controversies over the volume of information about ordinary Europeans that U.S. agencies have demanded in the wake of 9/11 — including banking details, flight-customer data and passport biometrics — show a strange difference between America and the Old World. Americans make noise about small government and individual freedom, but they tend to be more willing to give up private data than your average European.

Why? One reason is that Europeans have darker memories of "big government" from the last century than Americans do, just as they have a closer relationship to major wars. In Germany, there are people who remember life under Nazis and other people who remember life under Communists.

Tactics from the East German Communist regime, which survived almost into the 1990s, transfer easily to Western corporate life. There have been scandals over bosses spying on employees at Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Bahn, and a number of McDonald's franchise owners in Germany have recently sued the conglomerate for spying on their business practices. The idea, they argue, was to force them out of long-term contracts at well-located McDonald's restaurants.

The scandal has focused on a certain McDonald's manager known as Bernd R., who started his career as an informant for the Stasi, or Communist secret police, spying on fellow soldiers in the East German military. Until recently, he worked as a regional inspector for McDonald's. A number of franchise owners now claim they were spied on by Bernd R., then harassed by corporate management and forced out of business. "Bernd R. ... no longer works in inspections," according to Spiegel magazine. "He now operates three thriving restaurants in Bavaria that the company had offered to him."

The U.S. has seen its share of corporate spying, notoriously at Hewlett-Packard and Wal-Mart, but Germans have immediate and chilling language for it. "Das sind Stasi-Methoden," a person might say, "Those are Stasi methods" — whether or not an actual onetime Stasi agent like Bernd R. performs the surveillance.

This helps explain some of the European reaction to Google, Inc.'s ongoing project in Europe to photograph homes and landscapes for Google Street View. Last year a group of locals in Broughton, England, formed a human chain to keep a Google Street View car out of their village. A federal court in Geneva has frozen the Street View project on Swiss soil pending a decision in a privacy case, brought by the government itself. And Google may face invasion of privacy charges after a camera car caught a man in Finland lounging in his yard with his pants down.

Resistance in Germany is strongest. Protesters in a town called Oldenburg vandalized a camera car while it was parked overnight, and a conservative federal minister named Ilse Aigner has tried to slow Google's project by suggesting the company might have to win signed permission from every person accidentally photographed by the camera cars.

But even under Germany's (relatively strict) privacy laws, photographing in public spaces remains legal. "It's hard to prevent a company from launching a service when that service is legal," said Arnd Haller, head of Google Deutschland's legal department, at a press conference in February.

It's a clash of Western values on the very ground where they were first enunciated. The freedoms Google insists on have their roots in liberal European tradition; but when an outfit acquires the power to organize freely collected images and publish them, for profit, in a single place, well, maybe something not quite liberal has occurred.

"There is not a secret service in existence that would collect photos so unabashedly," Aigner has said.

Data, in fact, has a dollar value, which may be motivating a number of post-9/11 projects to gather information. Officials in the German state of Lower Saxony had Internet profits in mind when they floated the idea of charging Google Street View to photograph local buildings and streets.

"It is intolerable that the people who maintain the buildings, streets, roads, and plazas with their tax money should not see a cent when large amounts of data on their property is marketed wholesale," said Thorsten Bullerdieck, a spokesman for the Lower Saxony Association of Cities and Counties, at the tech trade fair CeBIT in March.

He may be right, but any legal challenge would probably fail, because Germans as well as foreigners are still free to walk down a road in Lower Saxony and point a camera wherever they like.