Data Security and Data Safety Unreserved or Anxious?

Are the Germans more security-conscious than other nations?
Are the Germans more security-conscious than other nations? | Photo (detail): Guenay Mutlu © iStockphoto

Google faced massive opposition in 2010 when it tried to introduce its “Street View”, a navigation service already available elsewhere, in Germany. Consumer affairs minister Ilse Aigner demanded that the company obtain homeowners’ permission. Are the Germans more security-conscious than other nations?

Google Street View is just one of a number of examples that appears to show that new media techniques and business practices used by modern Internet-based companies in Germany are not always received with open arms. In 2010, for example, Germany’s consumer affairs minister criticized plans by the American company Facebook to pass on user data automatically to third parties and threatened to terminate her membership. In contrast, no criticism was raised in early 2010 in south-eastern European countries, France or England. And there was certainly no audible criticism in the USA, the company’s home country. The Germans, apparently, had taken a special path.

Data protection and privacy rights

In Germany, data protection and privacy rights enjoy an extremely high level of legal protection. Thus, this is less a question of the German mentality than of German law. In both of these areas, the US companies did not comply with German legislation. Google Street View contravened privacy rights but in the end a compromise was found - home-owners could have their houses or apartments pixelled out. However, two further aspects of Google’s operations have also come in for repeated criticism. Firstly, the computer’s Internet Protocol (IP) address is saved automatically when a user makes an enquiry, but this is personal data which may not be stored for any length of time without the user’s permission. Secondly, the company uses these and other data to draw up user profiles which it could sell to third parties for advertising purposes. Under German law, users are required to have an opportunity to object, say critics. As Google has grown, it has brought a series of further applications onto the market (e.g. Goggles, its mobile picture search and recognition service, and GMail), which can be interconnected. This has led critics to talk of a data behemoth.

International criticism of Google

Meanwhile, the Germans are no longer alone in criticising Google. In a ranking of more than twenty leading Internet-based companies by British non-governmental organisation Privacy International, for example, Google is the only one judged to be “hostile to privacy”. In France, the President himself expressed an opinion on Google. Nicolas Sarkozy’s criticism related primarily to economic and fiscal aspects. In his view, the American company skimmed off a large proportion of the French advertising market without paying domestic tax. Then in late 2010, Google clashed with the European Commission, this time on antitrust issues. Google was accused of abusing its position to the disadvantage of rival search engines. In its home country, too, Google had problems with Texas’ Attorney General for similar reasons.

The case of Facebook

Facebook is not only making negative headlines in Germany. Photo: Feng Yu © iStockphotoThis social networking website has faced and continues to face criticism in Germany mainly on account of its use of personal data and profiles. It is precisely this use and forwarding of such data to third parties that is the company’s business concept, however. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes no secret of the fact, announcing that he is already cooperating with three companies, allowing them to see Facebook users’ personal profiles. In Germany, this is a clear contravention of the right of informational self-determination.

With its lax data handling, Facebook is not only making negative headlines in Germany. Many members abroad are also trying to draw Facebook’s attention to this unsatisfactory situation. Canadian web designers Joseph Dee and Matthew Milan declared 30 May 2010 to be Quit Facebook Day. Thus there is global criticism that social networks and new Internet-based business concepts threaten the data protection and privacy rights of users world-wide.