Sunday, June 01, 2008

Street View is Great, but Stay Off Private Drives

Back in February, I wrote a column about a relatively new technology that lets you go online and take a look at your house, your car, or even yourself if you happened to be outside when the picture was taken. It is a feature of Google Earth called Street View.

Google has been busy driving through every street in its attempt to photograph every building and intersection in America. But there have been a few potholes in its way. The detractors are those who claim Google has violated private roads or driveways, and from those who don’t want their pictures or the pictures of their children posted online for all to see.

In the mid-1990s, I was editor of Edinburgh’s weekly newspaper, Tricounty News. Every issue had a feature photo on the front page. The feature photo often included kids doing cute things. Although most of the photos were of local people, none of the people were asked to sign a consent form. That’s because when people are in public places, it is legal to photograph them.

Google is just simply doing what most newspapers do, but on a grand scale. People who complain are those who are caught skipping work or walking out of strip clubs or bars, or otherwise doing something that might be embarrassing to them. Then, along comes Google’s van with its fish-eye cameras mounted on top and snaps a picture of the embarrassing activity and places it on the Internet.

You can’t blame those who are photographed in that manner for being upset. But if they are afraid of getting caught by the camera, maybe they shouldn’t have been engaged in the embarrassing activity to begin with. If they get caught, they just need to get over it and chalk it up to experience.

Recently, a community in Minnesota kicked Google’s camera-mobile out of town. The mayor sent a letter to Google demanding that it remove the pictures of the town’s streets from its Web site. Google complied. It has a policy of removing individual pictures if requested and if there is a good reason. But it has never been asked to remove the pictures from a whole town.

Apparently, the village’s streets are privately owned. It is a separate town with a name, North Oaks. But it is much like a gated community without the gates. It has a population of 4,500.

Since its streets are privately owned, the mayor said that Google was trespassing when it photographed the town for its Street View service.

Earlier this year, a couple sued Google for posting a picture of their house on its Web site. The house, the couple claimed, was at the end of a private driveway, not a public street.

Private property should be respected. If Google’s van is driving along private drives or in gated communities without permission, then it is trespassing. So, some people do have legitimate complaints in certain rare instances.

For the most part, however, Google’s Street View is performing a marvelous service that could only be dreamed of just a few years ago. It’s one thing to be able to find a location on a map. It’s even better if you can use Google Earth to see the neighborhood from space. But the ultimate tool for the traveler is to be able to see real photos of the streets and buildings before you make the trip.

Street View lets you take a virtual tour of almost every street in most cities, with more streets being added all the time. Eventually, every street in America will be included. You can then take a road trip and see all the sights without ever leaving the comfort of your easy chair. Then you can decide if you really want to go there.

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