Google's Street View panoramic photo mapping service allows users to see street level photographs of specific locations, to take virtual walks while panning, rotating and zooming through cities around the world, and to find shops, restaurants, parks, hotels and other spots in given geographic locations. Good, right?
Well, not so fast. According to a recent New York Times article, a German data protection official has just threatened Google with "unspecified sanctions" if Google does not conform its Street View service to comply with strict German privacy laws (on the supposed assumption that Google is not presently in compliance).
The heart of the controversy involves photographs of houses and private property without permission and the handling of recorded data that later is removed from Street View subsequent to property owner complaints, according to the article.
Data protection administrators from a number of German states reportedly have objected to Google's Street View service. Indeed, the article states that in the city of Kiel, residents put stickers on their front doors last year telling Google not to film their property.
Since 2008, Google reportedly has been putting together a photographic inventory of German streets for Street View, which has been available in various countries, but has not yet been launched in Germany.
The article indicates that Google is willing to allow Germans the right to opt out online of Street View filming, and they can seek to have Street View remove images of their property that have been posted.
So, where is the privacy line when it comes to photographs of the real property?
On the one hand, a building on a street often is in public view, and arguably is not terribly private. On the other hand, it is one thing for a finite number of people to be able to view the building as they might see it from the street, but it is another matter for people from all over the world to see that building online.
Also, while "opt-out" generally is the privacy regime in the United States (meaning that people need to opt-out affirmatively to prevent the sharing of their private information), in Europe, opt-in is the rule (meaning that consent must be obtained up-front before private information can be made available). Thus, what might fly in the US, might not go over so well in the European Union.
No matter what happens with respect to this particular dispute, there is no question that the world is becoming a much smaller place.
Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP (http://www.duanemorris.com) where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line.
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