August 28, 2007

Can Google "Street View" Steal Your Soul?

Greetings. Various ancient civilizations, and a surprising number of people in contemporary cultures, have believed that images possess the power to steal one's soul, to imprison it in paint, emulsion, or (in today's terms) image data.

It's generally acknowledged by the scientific community that cameras do not have any direct soul-stealing power (with the possible exception of the 1960s' infamous Polaroid "Swinger" camera).

Yet, I'm increasingly fielding e-mail and phone calls from persons who seem to believe that photographs taken in public can do them serious damage, and both legislatures and courts are moving to impose limits on previously public photos. These range from preventing people from taking photographs or videos of bridges and highways to ordering a professed pedophile not to take photos of children (despite his lack of any criminal record and claims not to act on his impulses). There are many other examples between these two data points, as well.

Some of this flaring up of photography concerns was triggered by 9/11 ("Who would take photos of bridges except potential terrorists?" is the implicit assumption). Lately, more negative reaction appears to have been triggered by Google Maps "Street View," which while not the first street-level Internet photo application, is in my opinion the slickest and best implemented -- and it's those very qualities that seems to freak many people out totally. I'm on record as not seeing significant privacy problems with the current Street View implementation, and I believe that restrictions on public photography can do serious harm to public safety. However, there are those in the privacy and broader Internet community who strongly disagree with me on this issue, pointing for example to the recent case of a teacher being humiliated by an anonymous, "dishonestly" edited YouTube video, among many other examples (a particularly egregious example to be sure, but perhaps more specifically related to YouTube editorial policies -- an important topic in and of itself -- rather than broader public photography issues).

It can be argued that the legal concepts we have of privacy and any abilities to "control one's image" (or lack of such abilities) have been outdated by the rise of instant Internet distribution of photos, YouTube, and the like, where perceived "damage" can be done almost immediately upon an item being posted, and even later removal of such materials from their original distribution point does little to stem their continuing flow around the Net. This is an extremely difficult problem, where "simple" solutions are likely to be the least palatable in the long run.

Some observers argue that celebrities already have considerable means to control uses of their images, and that anti-paparazzi laws in some locales are also largely aimed at helping that same demographic, rather than ordinary folks.

I personally remain highly dubious regarding how significant new photographic "controls" can be imposed without triggering massively unwarranted restrictions and potentially very dangerous collateral damage. I really don't like the idea of public photographic restrictions except perhaps in extremely narrow and rare circumstances. But, given that judges and legislators are already moving toward broader controls, intellectual honesty requires that we ask the related key questions.

The questions: Is it desirable -- and practical -- to impose relatively broad restrictions on public still or motion photography of individuals, property, or other locations, and/or the posting of such imagery on the Internet or in other venues? If you're in favor of such restrictions, how far would you go? How would you impose and monitor such restrictions? How would you propose that the balance between the public's "right to know" and private concerns be suitably balanced? Would such restrictions be starting us down a slippery slope toward making virtually all public photography illegal, with potentially unpredictable consequences? Or, do you have a formula that you believe could impose your desired restrictions without such damage?

I'd be very interested in your responses and discussion, particularly over in the PFIR Forums Google Maps discussion area.

Thanks very much.


Posted by Lauren at August 28, 2007 07:38 PM | Permalink
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