The Google spy

Google Maps Street View bans reveal Internet culture differences between Europe and the U.S.

by Julian Switala

What if I told you that you can soar hundreds of miles above the Earth, traverse canyons, scale Mount Everest and nose dive to the ground without crashing? Then what if I told you that 500 million people are already doing this? ItâÄôs not called being a superhero. ItâÄôs called Google Maps.

Google Maps is one of the most used web applications in the world, facilitating virtual travel to foreign lands and even your own house. Yet these seemingly peaceful excursions have recently been investigated in several countries around the world, highlighting differences between the United States and the Europe.

In late September the Czech Republic banned Google from recording images for its Street View mapping service, claiming that itâÄôs an unjustified invasion of citizensâÄô privacy.

Other European countries have taken similar actions. Italy is threatening a fine of 180,000 Euros, or $252,000, if GoogleâÄôs Street View cars are not clearly marked and if Google doesnâÄôt publish its itinerary three days in advance.

In Germany, Google gave residents the option of not having households included in the Street View service. Out of almost 8.5 million households, more than 244,000 decided to opt out.

Since nations have the authority to dictate what individuals and organizations may do within their borders, it is difficult to argue that these actions arenâÄôt justifiable. In fact, most of them follow national precedents that influence how they handle privacy issues.

Accordingly, one reason why we havenâÄôt seen such protests against GoogleâÄôs Street View mapping service in the U.S. is because the privacy regimes across the pond are radically different. Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Washington Post that, “The European model is extensive data protection in private information, and the U.S. model is piecemeal.”

Additionally, cultural differences between the U.S. and the European Union may be an explanation for these events.

The U.S. probably has the most Internet-friendly culture in the world. The Internet was developed in the U.S. and English is the InternetâÄôs dominant language. Moreover, many of the worldâÄôs most visited websites such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Twitter and eBay were created in the U.S. and are based in the U.S.

As such, it isnâÄôt difficult to imagine that part of the motivation behind the privacy claims may stem from differences in a countryâÄôs upbringing with the Internet. Of course, these generalizing claims arenâÄôt true in every situation and there are definitely exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, itâÄôs important to be aware of how economic and cultural forces may be perceived when theyâÄôre mediated through digital space.

Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that the “right to be left alone” is “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” Although this is probably an overstatement, thereâÄôs no doubt that the line dividing what is public and what is private has become increasingly blurred.

Far from eliminating national borders and the time it takes to travel across them, the controversy surrounding GoogleâÄôs Street View indicates that these borders are merely being relocated and redefined.


Julian Switala welcomes comments at
[email protected].