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Content Moderation Case Study: Google 'Removes' German Residences From Street View By Request (2010) – Techdirt

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Content Moderation
Summary: Google’s Street View is a powerful mapping tool that allows users to visit places they’ll possibly never be able to visit and allows local users to see homes and businesses they’re trying to locate.
But Google’s Street View hasn’t been warmly welcomed everywhere. In Germany — a country with a long history of pervasive surveillance by government agencies — Google’s mapping project hit a roadblock. In an effort to comply with German privacy laws, Google worked with data protection authorities to ensure all requirements were met before its cars and cameras hit the road.
Restrictions on data collection have resulted in Germany being one of the least-mapped countries in Europe.
After meeting with considerable public opposition to Google’s street mapping, Google allowed residents to opt out. This resulted in opted-out locations being blurred in Street View, providing owners with more privacy inside Street View than they enjoyed outside it.
Decisions to be made by Google:

  • Should the normal lack of an expectation of privacy in publicly-viewable areas override local restrictions on data-gathering?
  • Is an opt-out plan cost effective (as compared to simply not mapping at all in restricted areas)?
  • Do “holes” in map coverage increase risks to drivers and travelers? 
  • Is there a possibility the opt-out function could be abused by trolls and/or opponents of Google’s Street View project?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Does following local privacy laws possibly make Google’s Street View less useful than competing products that may not follow laws or that receive more deference from local authorities?
  • Is the mapping project likely to run into greater resistance in the future, given world legislators’ ongoing concerns with lax privacy laws?
  • Could Google be considered culpable for harm resulting from incomplete maps, especially when coupled with Google’s built-in live navigation software?
  • What tools does Google have at its disposal to push back against legal restrictions?

Resolution: Given the chance to opt out, most Germans chose not to. According to Google, less than 3% of affected households asked Google to blur their residences, resulting in a little more than 244,000 blurred houses in Street View.
The opt-out program also led to an unfortunate, unforeseen, and completely unintended consequence. A small group of rogue “transparency advocates” sought out “blurred” houses and egged them. Some of those who opted out were also treated to handwritten notes informing them that Google was “cool.” Very little actual damage was done.
Despite the early opposition — which resulted in Google shutting down its attempted mapping of Germany in 2011 — Google has taken a second run at the country and its resistance to the Street View project. Its site lists a large number of German cities and towns that have recently been mapped by Google during its latest attempt, which began in July 2020 and will wrap up early next year. Google “removes” German residences from Street View by request (2010)
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Filed Under: germany, google maps, maps, privacy, street view
Companies: google
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When Street View was in its early days, a fanatic Google hater by the name of Jon Newton insisted that Google should make the program strictly opt-in, ignoring that doing so would make it virtually worthless. Of course he also insisted that it was illegal to film anyone or anything in public without explicit permission. He actually claimed that news crews would get signed permission forms from every person who walked or drove by while they were filming stories in public.
When I asked if he had gotten signed permission to use images of people in articles on his site, he deleted my comments. As he did any comment that was at all sympathetic to Google, while claiming that he only deleted "spam" and "obvious Google shills". Somewhere I still have an archive of screenshots of all my posts that got deleted, showing how full of shit he was.
As for Google Street View, I love it. It’s allowed me to scout out routes to various places that I plan to visit by bike. It’s allowed me to find businesses that I’m looking for and it’s allowed me to show people in other areas what my neighborhood looks like.
I do notice odd censorship though. At one point, they blurred the sign of a local CVS Pharmacy. I’ve seen other business signs and logos blurred as well. That seems counter-productive to me.
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I do notice odd censorship though. At one point, they blurred the sign of a local CVS Pharmacy. I’ve seen other business signs and logos blurred as well. That seems counter-productive to me.
Likely being mistaken for license plates, which Google tries to blur.
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Maybe. I notice they blur A LOT of commercial signs, names of shops, etc.
A lot – maybe 80%. But not all.
Strange. I wonder if it’s some silly worry about "using" somebody else’s trademark.
And I know their software today is smart enough to tell the difference between those and license plates. (But maybe not 10 years ago when they started doing this, and maybe they’re still using the old software).
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"Maybe. I notice they blur A LOT of commercial signs, names of shops, etc."
I think location matters. I just tried a few locations I’m familiar with in the UK, US and Spain, and I couldn’t see any examples of this at all – licence plates are blurred, but street signs, business signs, billboards, etc. are still perfectly visible. I suspect there’s some local governments telling them to go overboard wherever you’re looking.
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Maybe. Or, perhaps the areas you’re looking in were simply processed with more recent (smarter) software.
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I somehow doubt that there’s that much discrepancy between software version on Google’s cloud based platform from one location to another. There should be no internal reason not to update versions within hours over the whole platform on a tech level, and this sounds to me more like a new enforced feature rather than something outdated.
Also, my checks were in Madrid and various smaller cities near me in the south of Spain, Nottingham and London in the UK and San Francisco in the US. Only a small random sampling of places I’m familiar enough with IRL to notice any weird obfuscation quickly, but enough to indicate that it’s a local issue wherever you’re looking rather than a global issue.
Although, of course, I can’t possibly validate my theory without knowing where you’re seeing so much censorship. I can only confirm that I don’t see it in the places I choose to look.
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I can’t say I’ve seen any recently. I was going to provide an example, but I couldn’t find any. I even tried looking at the older versions in front of the CVS that I’m sure was blurred, but going back to 2011, it looks fine. I thought I’d seen some not too long ago, but maybe I’m just remembering old versions of it.
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Yeah, it’s quite possible that at some point they were overcompensating while local governments decided what they actually had to blur – I do recall some people trying to claim that anything identifiable would be unacceptable for whatever reason.
But, I’d imagine that Google would only want to blur what they know is actually required (the service is far less useful if you can’t see landmarks), and whatever blurring they put in place would probably on the fly at the display phase. So, they maybe stopped blurring when they knew they were in the clear to show unedited images, and the original images would be unaffected even if they had been blurred at some point.
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In most countries this is settled law – if you can see it from a public place (street, sidewalk) – you can take and publish a photo of it.
As it should be.
(Don’t like it? Build a fence.)
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"He actually claimed that news crews would get signed permission forms from every person who walked or drove by while they were filming stories in public."
I’d love for him to try to prove that, especially for live broadcasts in busy cities or events. By his logic, a live broadcast from Times Square on NYE couldn’t be screened for a few years until all the paperwork was sorted out.
"As for Google Street View, I love it."
It’s a massively useful tool for all sorts of uses, be that checking your route or destination or simple curiosity (or even games such as GeoGuessr). Most of the objections seem to be based on outright fantasy, such as the claim that a static images taken 3 years ago will help burglars scope out properties or the seeing faces on a public street is a privacy violation.
When people say these things, I often wonder if there’s something behind them other than general paranoia (for example – is that person regularly doing something out on the street that they wouldn’t want to be recorded for posterity should the Google van happen by?). There’s certainly been some examples of people being caught doing things they shouldn’t have been doing in public.
"At one point, they blurred the sign of a local CVS Pharmacy. I’ve seen other business signs and logos blurred as well. That seems counter-productive to me."
Sometimes these things will be requests from external parties demanding that things get blocked. Sometimes it will just be an algorithm messing up and misinterpreting signs as things they have been given blanket orders to block in some areas (licence platers, faces, etc.). It would be counter-productive to either party to block such things from a tool commonly used to locate businesses, but common sense doesn’t always rule the roost in these situations.
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This is a spambot above me.
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Someone needs to go around and take pictures of every house removed from Street View in Germany and print a story showing them. Maybe they are all criminals…
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That’s the old "got nothing to hide" bullshit you’re spouting there. If those people want privacy for whatever reason, they should get it without others invading them for that, because privacy is a human right.
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"If those people want privacy for whatever reason"
…they shouldn’t be in public?
Nobody’s saying that a real privacy request should be denied, just that – by definition – you shouldn’t expect privacy when walking around in public.
If you have a problem with this – describe which activities you participate in full view of everyone around you that should be considered private.
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…they shouldn’t be in public?
Every house inevitably borders the public. Maybe they have a padding in a form of a garden, but usually it’s not kilometers long millionaires garden. "Build a fence" – sure and most, if not virtually all houses do have a wall. But take the case of a burglar or trespasser: you only need to build a symbolic wall to be able to sue them. It could be a holey Jägerzaun, barely holding together, it’d still count in court. In the same sense, I wouldn’t expect I’d need to build a 8m high Mexico-US wall for my privacy.
Nobody’s saying that a real privacy request should be denied, just that – by definition – you shouldn’t expect privacy when walking around in public.
If you have a problem with this – describe which activities you participate in full view of everyone around you that should be considered private.
Sitting in your garden isn’t walking around. Having part of the house visible over the fence isn’t making it publicly accessible. Though I’m not advocating no pictures must ever be allowed, as reported in the first comment. A balance is good, in the form of opt-out. What I’ve agitated against is the assertion of Pixelation that "Someone needs to go around and take pictures […] and print a story showing them" – in essence being an invasion of privacy because it’s done with utter disregard for the privacy choices of those persons opting out.
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"most, if not virtually all houses do have a wall"
So, what’s the problem? What magically changes when the person look over in that direction is holding a camera, that doesn’t make it problematic for all the other people who go down the road on a daily basis?
"But take the case of a burglar or trespasser: you only need to build a symbolic wall to be able to sue them"
You don’t become a burglar or trespasser without entering (or attempting to enter) the property. Standing on the public road and looking at the property is nothing like the same as that, and it’s dumb to try and conflate the two actions.
"Having part of the house visible over the fence isn’t making it publicly accessible"
But, if it’s visible to anyone standing in the road, that’s not privacy. Also, nobody’s asking access to your property, they’re looking at what you’ve chosen to allow visible from the public street.
Put it this way – if you choose to parade around semi-naked in your own home, you can do that and you should be protected from anyone walking on your property to try and grab a look. But, if you choose to do it in front of a street-facing window with the lights on, the problem isn’t that someone walking past noticed. If you have a problem with being seen, consider closing the curtains first.
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So, what’s the problem? What magically changes when the person look over in that direction is holding a camera, that doesn’t make it problematic for all the other people who go down the road on a daily basis?
Persons carry the mental picture in their head and it isn’t easily sharable. Reach is quite limited, maybe in form of some gossip. Over time, it might become a local legend, distorted with other stuff. But for the insignificant stuff, the incident will fade from human memories and privacy will be regained.
A picture posted on the web on the other hand creates a permanent record, for all eternity to see. It might even be used for stalking purposes or some hate group might use it to enhance their enemy list. Generally, privacy is much harder to regain.
You don’t become a burglar or trespasser without entering (or attempting to enter) the property. Standing on the public road and looking at the property is nothing like the same as that, and it’s dumb to try and conflate the two actions.
I wasn’t conflating the actions but the required amount of fence you need to be protected. Against the burglar and trespasser you do not need a meters high wall with barbed wire (to have a standing against them in court if you know their identity). Why should you need to have that big wall for a modest expectation of privacy? As outlined above, that expectation rather covers the permanent record making, not just a look from passers by.
But, if it’s visible to anyone standing in the road, that’s not privacy. Also, nobody’s asking access to your property, they’re looking at what you’ve chosen to allow visible from the public street.
I agree the expectation of privacy ends somewhere. Though I’d say it’s a gradient. So rather than from zero-to-one privacy with the house wall being the perimeter, for the padding area (the "garden" 🙂 and the surface of the four-walls I maintain a limited privacy right for non-newsworthy permanent records.
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"it might even be used for stalking purposes"
That, for you information, is where you go from potentially reasonable but unenforceable concerns (you can’t stop people taking pictures from public streets no matter how it hurts your feelings, whether that’s Google or someone walking down the street livestreaming their route), into outright bullshit. A picture on the web from 4 years ago is going to be used by stalkers in some way they don’t otherwise have access to? Really?
"some hate group might use it to enhance their enemy list"
How? Those pictures aren’t live, can be 10 years old in some cases. Even if the owner of the property is the same person as when the picture was taken, what exactly do you have visible from the public street that people are going to compile enemy lists from, that they don’t have access to otherwise? The only thing that comes to mind is political signs, but since their entire purpose is to broadcast your support of a candidate, that’s pretty weak.
"I wasn’t conflating the actions but the required amount of fence you need to be protected."
The amount of fence is irrelevant. A person is not a trespasser or burglar until they attempt to enter your property. A fence makes this more difficult and removes the excuse of having accidentally wandered on to the property, but its presence doesn’t magically change whether a person is trespassing. By definition, a person standing on the public street is not trespassing, nor can they ever be from that location.
"I agree the expectation of privacy ends somewhere"
Yes, it ends on the public street.
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I installed an anti-camera device on my house, now no one can take a picture.
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Did Google try to to drive their car inside your home?
Because that would be over the top – yeah?
That really should be opt-in.
… oh wait, you’re upset about Google driving their cars on roads?
lol, where should they drive?
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These cards are taking over New York
<a href="https://weediquettedispensary.org/product/tko-carts/”>tko carts</a>
whats your take??
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Someone needs to go around and take pictures of every house removed from Street View in Germany and print a story showing them. Maybe they are all criminals…
"https://weediquettedispensary.org/product/tko-carts/
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Opting out doesn’t seem to be too bad of an idea given there’s already services like this that people are pretty upset about: https://scoperty.de/home
Some company simply decided it’s okay to put out estimates on everyone’s houses.
Who knows what else they can come up with when they turn to Street View?
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"Who knows what else they can come up with when they turn to Street View?"
Which particular information is available to them via Street View that’s not available by visiting the location physically?
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You might be surprised at how much information about you is public
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That is why alternative providers in Germany for the valuation of residential real estate, which are sponsored by the state investment bank, have relied on "opt-in" from the very beginning. Only this complies with data protection in Germany. Here, too, prices of millions of properties can be called up. However, not on Google, but on OpenStreetMaps: https://immobilienwertrechner.de/
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Now to await the follow up article on the competition
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Top 5 Best Facebook Video Downloader for Android.

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