German minister stresses privacy rights with Google chief

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German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle met Google co-founder Larry Page Thursday, the ministry said, amid tensions over its controversial Street View service and the sanctity of private data.

In an unusual half-hour, closed-doors meeting at the ministry with a foreign business executive, Westerwelle also took up the issue of censorship in China and other countries which have posed challenges to the US-based Internet giant.

"Minister Westerwelle underlined the importance of freedom of expression on the Internet and he heard about the experiences of the company in China and other countries," his office said in a statement.

"In the context of the current debate about Google's Street View, Minister Westerwelle stressed the importance of data protection in Germany. Anyone who believes in the rights of citizens to their freedoms should recognise the importance of data protection."

The meeting came after prosecutors in the northern city of Hamburg, where Google's German unit is based, opened a preliminary probe against the company after it admitted to mistakenly gathering personal data with its Street View mapping service.

Google said last week that it was halting the collection of WiFi network information for Street View because it had inadvertently collected personal data sent via unsecured systems. It has since apologised.

German authorities have been among Google's chief critics over Street View, which began in 2006 and allows users to view panoramic street scenes on Google Maps.

A foreign ministry spokesman told AFP that the meeting with Page had been scheduled weeks ago and said it was common for Westerwelle, chairman of the pro-business Free Democrats, to meet with "entrepreneurs".

"There was the interest on both sides to have a conversation," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile in March, Google stopped filtering results on its Chinese-language search engine to protest government censorship and what it said were China-based cyberattacks.

The issue touched off a war of words between Beijing and Washington over Internet freedom, adding to a host of other bilateral trade disputes.

© 2010 AFP

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