Privacy Law in Germany

Privacy law is taken very seriously in Germany, much more so than in the UK. It is one of the strictest countries regarding privacy in the world. This is very noticeable in terms of the contrast in media coverage between the UK and Germany, however it also applies to the internet. German privacy laws and more notably their enforcement have actually put restrictions on areas of the internet and it’s use. This has caused websites and social media such as Google and Facebook numerous problems, as the freedoms of the internet come into conflict with the growing interference with the private lives of individuals.

Street View in Germany: Germans were given the chance to opt out of Google Streetview

In 2010 Google maps was forced to blur out images at street level, after complaints by residents whose houses were shown. People were given the opportunity to opt out of Street View in order to comply with German privacy standards. 3% of Germans actually did this and these buildings were blurred out, making Street View look rather comical. In some cases single housing blocks were blurred out among a whole row of buildings on well known city streets, while in the countryside many large houses were blurred out obscuring the entire street. Google has since stopped updating Google Street View in Germany. Ironically the blurred out images have attracted attention all around the world, which is probably not exactly what the owners of those houses wanted.

Last year, the Independent Centre for Privacy Protection (ULD) in Schleswig-Holstein (a state on the Northern tip of Germany) made it illegal for organisations based in the state to have Facebook fan pages and to use the ‘Like’ application. The ULD website states that by using the application, traffic and content data are transferred to the United States where feedback is sent to the website owner regarding the web page usage. Therefore, according to the ULD, when you visit Facebook or use one of it’s plug-ins you can expect to be tracked by the company for two years. Last summer, privacy officials in Hamburg also claimed Facebook could be fined for keeping biometric data stored via the facial recognition system hosted on it’s site.

Germany has a rather diligent application of the European Directive on Privacy while the UK’s application is rather loose to say the least. However privacy laws have been in place since the 1970s and the right to privacy has been an important issue in German society for a long time. The history of Germany has a large part to play in this. Under the Nazi regime and in the GDR people were constantly under surveillance and faced persecution. These regimes used methods that severely infringed people’s privacy and made a negative and terrifying impact on their personal lives. Many Germans feel that privacy laws are very important and that these should be regularly updated and adapted to be in tune with modern technology and society. Maybe we could learn from the German approach to privacy in relation to the view that the law should be an ever evolving organism, which is a perception long held by the legal system in England and Wales.

Challenges to privacy infringements by Germany may not be such a bad thing for internet users across the globe, as it brings to light potentially dodgy privacy violations by new applications, terms and conditions or privacy policies by new media and social networking sites. The issue of privacy will only become a wider issue as our personal lives are ever more present  and visible online and while companies seek to use personal information on the internet as a resource for selling their products and conducting research. While the UK may still be more pragmatic and loose in it’s implementation of privacy laws, it will most likely become more stringent as individuals grow increasingly concerned with their right to privacy and their exposure over the internet.

7 responses to “Privacy Law in Germany

  1. Great article natasha- We have it every day at work – we sell an email system where the governing law is safe harbor, but germany is very reluctant to work with cloud based applications.

  2. Pingback: CCDP: Privacy Law and Monitoring the Public | tashalaw

  3. Thank you from Germany for this learned and understanding article.
    Maybe the translation of George Orwells “1984” into the german language was completely different/wrong? ;-))

  4. A great article! Also I read somewhere that in Germany, an accused in any case also enjoys the same privacy as any other citizens which prevents media from publicising the identity of the accused. Is this true? To what extent is this followed? Thanks for the article!

    • Hi Nikhil thank you for your comment, it is true that there are stricter restrictions on the media in Germany regarding the privacy of individuals. Cases, especially those involving minors and cases of suicide will have strict reporting restrictions. Family members in such cases would often be able to actively lift these restrictions if they wish to do so by approaching the media. I am not aware to which extent an accused will enjoy privacy rights in the media. It would most likely depend on the case itself. However, this would be a good idea for an article so I shall attempt to find out for you and write about it.

  5. Is it because of the statsi ? Germany once had one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. When it comes to data laws, germans have one of the strictest in the world – perhaps as an epidermic reaction against the potential uses of this data.

  6. Tim Berger nee Goldschmidt

    I find the privacy laws very restrictive in particular for Germans outside of Germany who are trying to locate their ancestors and in particular their living relatives. Eighty years of protection for marriage records, and 100 years of individual protection after birth virtually eliminates most living relatives ability to find German ancestors. Even Ancestry.com is basically useless in trying to gather records on living German relatives and ancestors who are less than 100 years old (most likely deceased). I am speaking of relatives who have lost contact with their ancestors due to relocation to other countries around the world. This comment is by a frustrated American who’s father relocated from Germany to the US in 1924.

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