Google Promises to Stop Photographing on Private Property Without Permission

Published November 1, 2008

Despite claiming in court documents it could rightfully publish photographs taken on private roads and driveways, Google Inc. now says it will use only photos taken on public thoroughfares for the “street view” feature of its wildly popular Google Maps program.

A Pennsylvania couple sued Google in April for trespass and invasion of privacy in using the couple’s private road and driveway to take pictures that were then posted online. Google likened its use of private property to that of a delivery truck or a vehicle using a private drive to turn around.

Asked about the public policy implications of Google’s insistence on photographing from private property, Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, emphasized common law rights protect privacy.

“Property rights and the law of trespass mean that people can close their doors and have a law-backed expectation that others won’t see what goes on behind them,” Harper said. “The same goes for keeping people off of land—it makes private what goes on there. When Google takes photos from any vantage on private property, it is violating property rights and, as we’ve seen, violating privacy.”

Nothing New

Daniel Ballon, a policy fellow in technology studies at the Pacific Research Institute, said although Google’s Street View technology may spur new debates about privacy in the digital age, it does not pose any new public policy questions.

“Laws against trespassing have protected the rights of property owners for hundreds of years, and the existence of new technologies is irrelevant to this case,” Ballon said.

Ballon suggested Google was no different from any other intruder in ignoring “no trespassing” signs and physically driving on private property.

“This case does not involve our changing expectations of privacy in public, but rather whether we have any legal protection against a peeping Tom snooping on our property,” Ballon said.

Removal Tools Available

A Google spokesperson who declined to be identified said company policy is to gather images from public roads only and that Google trains its drivers to follow that policy.

“When we learn that imagery may have been mistakenly gathered against our policy, we act quickly to remove such imagery,” the spokesperson said. “In fact, we remove images even where there is not a clear policy violation. We provide an easy-to-use process so that people can ask us to remove anything with which they are not comfortable.

“We believe this suit is without merit,” the spokesperson added. “Google respects individual privacy. We blur faces in Street View, and we offer easy-to-use removal tools so users can decide for themselves whether or not they want a given image to appear in Street View. It is unfortunate the [couple] decided to pursue litigation instead of making use of these tools.”

Further Suits Possible

Ballon said Google has become a pioneering new media company, redefining how consumers receive information, and that Street View is really a form of new media journalism.

“Just as the paparazzi routinely invade the privacy of Hollywood celebrities, Google will make many targets uncomfortable as they push boundaries to get the best shot,” Ballon said.

Ballon believes the company could face lawsuits in California if its Street View conduct is deemed “offensive to a reasonable person.”

Laws in Place

Harper said Google would best serve its interests by aggressively self-policing any trespassing incidents.

“Google should pay the victims and do what it can to reduce the availability of photos taken of private places,” Harper said. “Free markets depend on a legal framework and a court system to enforce the laws.”

Ballon agrees.

“No new laws or regulations are required to check Google’s activities,” Ballon said. “Existing civil penalties against trespassing create a more-than-adequate incentive for new media companies to respect private property rights.”

Market Factors

Harper said he thinks the marketplace has already recognized privacy concerns with Google Street View, and “the company pays some price for maintaining the service against the wishes of some.”

As a private company, Google must take great care to protect its image and reputation, Ballon said.

“Any behavior that reflects poorly on the company could deter customers, diminish profits, and anger shareholders,” Ballon said. Just as the company quickly altered its terms of use for the Chrome browser when errors were found in its license, he added, Google could quickly change Street View in response to public pressure.

Harper said government has already done its part in the matter by establishing property rights and a court system to enforce them.

“There is no need for further action, such as new legislation or regulation,” Harper said. “In cases where Google has violated people’s property rights, the company should be found guilty, made to pay, and made to minimize the privacy invasion it has caused.”

Loren Heal ([email protected]) writes from Neoga, Illinois.