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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Google Responds to Street View Concerns

In an interview with German Spiegel Online, Head of Google Northern Europe Philipp Schindler was questioned on the privacy implications of the new Google Street View (which shows detailed city imagery, including persons as part of Google Maps). He explained (my translation & emphasis):

The Street View feature includes only those photos taken from public grounds. The imagery is not different from anything each of us can photograph themselves – the kinds of things you’d see when you walk the streets. Added to that, we spoke to a variety of US organizations to get a feeling if there’s potential concerns, and if so, which these are. In the cases where we found out it’s necessary to introduce special privacy protections, we reacted prior to launch. For instance, you won’t find images of accommodations for the homeless, or abortion clinics.

Philipp Schindler goes on to say that similar concerns Street View faces now were also voiced when Google Earth was released, and that now “there’s hardly any internet user who’s not enthusiastic about Google Earth.” He admits:

Of course there may be individual cases where someone is photographed in a moment in which they feel disturbed, and in which they’d rather not be seen. But the statistical probability of that is extremely low. But for those cases we offer the option to notify us. We then check up on it, and if necessary, completely remove inappropriate imagery.

When questioned on whether or not Google pre-moderates the photos, Philipp says “no, the photos are taken in an automated process, which is crucial.” As you might have seen, Google installs a camera on top of a car to take the Street View photos. There is “no photographer who consciously choses a view or zooms close to objects which are further away,” Philipp explains.

Philipp adds that Google Street View is just like when a press photographer takes a picture of people in a stadium, and that there are “no legal concerns” about this, “including in Europe.” Other parties may disagree about the situation in Europe*; I questioned German lawyer Arne Trautmann on the legality of Street View in Germany, and he told me there may well be issues.

According to ¬ß22 (of the “Kunsturheberrechtsgesetz”), Arne says, you need to get the approval of someone when you photograph them. Exempt from this however are famous persons, higher interests of art (and science), people at public events, people who are not the focus of the photograph, and more. Whether people are the focus of the photograph or not (when they become accessory, “Beiwerk”) has to be decided on a per-case basis. Arne cites from a past decision by the Federal Court of Justice of Germany in which a nude swimmer was a small part of a larger photo; the photographer considered this person accessory, but the Federal Court argued that the focus of many people would indeed be on this “accessory” – due to her nudity. (And if you check some of the websites aggregating popular Street View findings, you will repeatedly find the focus on people sun-bathing.)

Also, Arne points out that reproducing a license plate may be a violation of privacy (“Eingriff in das allgemeine Pers√∂nlichkeitsrecht”), because it may allow you to reproduce where someone was. However, Arne says that the last word on these issues isn’t spoken yet; I assume as is the case with many areas of law (just think of copyright), old laws and rulings aren’t always easy to apply to new technologies, like Google Street View.

*Google’s Street View can be accessed from Europe, but doesn’t show any cities outside the US so far.

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