Monday, July 12, 2010

Despite Privacy Inquiries, Germans Flock to Google, Facebook and Apple

Chenchao Liu has 446 friends on Facebook, loves his iPhone 3GS and is obsessed with Google searches and maps.

In that respect, Mr. Liu, 21, is like many American college students. But Mr. Liu lives in Germany, a country whose strict data protection laws have spurred inquiries into the practices of Facebook, Apple and Google — the companies responsible for the products and services he enjoys.

He is one of the millions of users who have helped make the offerings successful in Germany.

“I think many people in Germany, especially those in my age group, do not have as many problems with data protection as the regulators are making out,” said Mr. Liu, who studies chemistry at Technical University in Munich. “What it all comes down to is personal responsibility. No one is forcing anyone to use any of these services.”

American technology companies are under close scrutiny in Germany. Google is being investigated for having errantly collected personal Internet information like e-mail passwords while doing research for its Street View mapping service.

Facebook is being investigated for collecting data on non-Facebook users from the mailing lists of active users. And Apple has been asked to explain what kind of information its latest iPhone 4 is storing on users and for how long.

Johannes Caspar, a data protection supervisor in Hamburg who is conducting the investigations into Google and Facebook, said his agency was trying to protect consumers from themselves. “The problem is that many people are unaware what is being done with their data,” he said.

Strict privacy laws are a product of the post-World War II reconstruction, when German lawmakers restricted the use of personal information to prevent the government from singling out citizens and persecuting them.

It is illegal, for example, to publish the image or name of any private person without permission. This includes felons, who are usually identified in the media by the initial of their last name only, like Klaus P.

That has not stopped Germans from flocking to a social networking site or downloading the latest smartphone applications.

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