Digital World: The view from the Israeli street

Government-sponsored website asks surfers whether Google should be allowed to implement its Street View service for Israeli cities.

April 26, 2011 22:45
Google Street View car

Google Street View car 311. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

The Internet is all about sharing: information, power, location and all sorts of other things. And the saga of Google Street View’s attempts to set up shop in Israel is a good example of Internet sharing – and what it really means for us.

Little known among Israelis is a new government- sponsored site called Shituf (, the Hebrew word for “participation,” where Israelis can weigh in on the crucial issues of the day. The site was Government Services Minister Michael Eitan’s idea, and it acts like a virtual public square, with surfers approving or disapproving of proposed laws and policies.

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For example, among the dozens of issues visitors are asked to weigh in on are a proposal to limit the powers of police to search suspects and a law that would reduce cancellation fees for customers who drop cellphone or other subscription services. The site has been up since last summer, and new issues are added several times a week.

Whether it’s a sign of apathy among the public or a lack of awareness of the site’s existence, it’s a bit disappointing to see that nearly all the questions have garnered no more than a few dozen opinions. One question, though, has garnered at least 4,500 responses so far: Should Google should be allowed to implement its Street View service for Israeli cities and tourist sites? Street View is a feature of Google Maps that lets you see things as they really are on the ground. Instead of just viewing a street grid, you can actually see what the street and the surrounding area look like. It’s a service that can be very useful.

For example, if you’re going away to a hotel or a resort in an area you’re not familiar with, you could input the site’s coordinates into Google Maps and get a groundlevel view of the place, comparing what you see on screen to the glories described in the resort’s brochure. You can also check out attractions and places you might want to visit in the area.

It’s also a good way to check on driving directions and getting a feel for what landmarks on your route really look like before you take to the road. Using Street View is like taking a virtual drive in a place you’ve never been. As you move down the street on-screen, the Street View photos are stitched together to provide a single, continuous experience, giving users thousands of kilometers away the feeling of actually “being there.”

The more you know as a traveler, the better for you – and for the local economy of the place you’re visiting, since people are more likely to visit a place they’re at least somewhat familiar with. And fans of Street View would like to see Israeli cities get the same treatment, with potential tourists around the world getting an in-their-face look at the sites in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the better to encourage them to pay a visit here.

So what could be bad? Well, it took a few years for the defense establishment to determine that Street View would not constitute a threat to Israeli security. If you will recall, Hezbollah was said to have used Google Map technology to determine where to fire missiles during the Second Lebanon War. So it was natural for the defense establishment to have doubts on whether Google could be trusted with images of Israeli streets.

Apparently they can be – or, more likely, experts have decided that adding Israel to the 27 countries where the service is in use won’t make any difference to Hezbollah and Hamas, who probably already have a good idea of where they are going to fire their missiles, regardless of what they see on Street View.

Once the security question is eliminated, the concerns Israelis have over Street View, as reflected in the opinions on the Shituf site, turn to the run-of-the-mill ones that are concerns all over the world – particularly privacy, an area where Google always gets a lot of flak. Residents of numerous places have complained that Street View is invasive, as Google does not seek permission for the photos of houses, cars and buildings that Internet users see.

After several complaints filed against the company in Germany, for example, Google stopped updating Street View, so no new or updated photos will be added to the Street View photo database there. Numerous visitors to the Shituf site have cited the German privacy question as proof that Google is too big to guarantee privacy. And Germany is not alone; several other European countries are investigating whether Street View is a good idea.

In case you were wondering, it isn’t clear to me either how taking photos of the outside of buildings, which everyone is free to walk down the street and look at, is a violation of anyone’s privacy (anything you don’t want your neighbors looking at should be placed or done behind closed doors). Perhaps it’s just a part of the growing anti-Google sentiment around the world, as the company that seeks to classify and analyze all the data in the world seems to be getting a little too pushy in its attempts to acquire that data.

Google has set up a special Hebrew site ( to explain the benefits of Street View to skeptical Israelis.

Interestingly, though, the majority of visitors to the Shituf site (by nearly a 3-to-1 margin) approve of Street View’s landing in Israel, with most of them praising the “progress” the move symbolizes (and how Israeli tourism will benefit, as more people are exposed to the beautiful sites of the country).

Or maybe people are just resigned to the idea of Big Brother. The relative lack of interest in the latest iPhone scandal, in which bloggers have discovered that Apple is keeping close tabs on the movements of iPhone users (although, to be fair, Android phones apparently do the same thing), is telling in its echoes of silence.

Seen from that perspective, it makes sense that barely two dozen people bothered to render an opinion on the Shituf site on police search procedures. The attitude of most people seems to be that “they” – the police, Apple, Google, whomever – already know all about us anyway, so why fight it? And it actually makes sense: If you’re like most of us, there’s not too much worth hiding – we’re not that interesting anyway, it turns out!

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