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.
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.