OPINION | Google's Streetview, just launched in Australia and Japan, is creeping a lot of people out. And it should. Something's just not right.
So What's Wrong with StreetView? If you want to understand why “Joe Sixpack” might feel uneasy about Google StreetView, you need to do something that rarely happens in the IT industry. Instead of turning to the mirror, we need to imagine the world from Joe's point of view, with all his irrational likes and dislikes.
Whether all of the ordinary citizen's responses to StreetView are strictly “right or wrong” in rational terms, it's worth understanding the feelings that might provoke them against it.
So I'm going to try and put forward a few ways in which StreetView looks different to similar activities that wouldn't give Joe Sixpack even a moment's unease.
Whether reasonably or not, people do feel differently about having the pics of their homes published worldwide, compared to any one person at any one time deciding to walk down the street and take a photo.
Sure, anyone could find someone else's address in the phone book (unless they use an unlisted number). Sure, you could go to that street, take a photo, and put it on your personal Website. But it's fair to say that Google is acting on a completely different scale to someone looking you up in the phone book: it's taken hundreds of thousands of photos, and instead of posting them on a personal Website that nobody looks at, it's put them in front of millions and millions of eyeballs.
And Joe perceives, reasonably or otherwise, a lack of reciprocity. What Google can do to you, you can't do to Google – which almost anyone will find emotionally provocative. This leads me to my second point.
If an individual is hanging around your street acting creepy, you don't feel powerless to stop them. If a company passes by when you're not home, and later you find it's decided to publish the photo of your home on the Internet, what can you do?
Sure, you can “request” that Google remove your house from StreetView. There are two problems with this. First, after Google says “no”, what do you do? Second, as someone of my acquaintance has found, Google's response is likely to be in the very best traditions of American corporate bureaucracy: it took down exactly the one photo that showed one house from one angle – and every other photo in the street identifying the house remained in place.
Making people feel powerless — in fact, rubbing their noses in it ("Google hasn't broken any laws, what we're doing is completely legal, of course we will comply with any reasonable instructions, but in this particular case we've broken no laws and we're not going to take down the image you've objected to) — understandably provokes feelings of resentment.
People are especially touchy about this because they end up feeling powerless most of the time. Don't like the development application that the state government pushed through? Tough. Your suburb is going to be cut in half by freeway? Tough. You suffer from crap public transport? Tough. Don't like StreetView? Tough.
Google is touching people very close to their hearts, and people feel it's saying "tough" wherever it can.
Another point about powerlessness: from Joe Sixpack's point of view, not only does Google do what it likes, but it has a bunch of FWTs (fans with typewriters) who make fun of anyone who doesn't like what Google does. This may be unfair to the media – but it's when journalists say to the world at large “get over it”, we're revealing ourselves as out-of-touch and uninterested in how people feel.
So many aspects of the 'home life' have already been eroded that people have become very, very sensitive to questions of privacy: it feels like privacy is all they have left to them.
That might not be rational, but I don't particularly expect or demand that ordinary people are rational about all things. Nor is it fair to demand perfect rationality at all times, which brings me to my next point.
If Joe Sixpack says "My kids' sports club has banned cameras because of creeps, but Google can do what it likes. How is that fair?" it's hard to come up with a response. Telling him “it's not fair, get over it” makes the commentator sound just as arrogant as Google.
And there are plenty of stories of people who have been prevented by security goons from taking "unauthorised" photos of public buildings (even though the security goons have no particular legal right to do so – for example, if someone other than a policeman man-handles a citizen without a really good reason, it's an assault. Quoth Joe Sixpack: "So how come Google takes photos of private homes, and nobody stops them, and we just have to put up with it?"
It's not fair.
Yet another example of how the public might feel there's something unfair about all this: if someone puts (say) the Opera House on a postcard, they pay a fee. Google's going to make money out of photos of peoples' houses and we can't get a fee. Fair?
So I think there is a at least a justifiable feeling Google is behaving in a way that a private citizen may not – and that this is unfair. Maybe that feeling isn't reasonable, but I'd bet it's part of the public psychology.
And we haven't even got to privacy yet.
The commentaries I've read defending StreetView boil privacy down to a very legalistic definition in which every citizen who wants privacy needs to:
- provide a fully rational explanation for their desire;
- make sure that their explanation is good enough to stand up in court;
- have enough money to win a High Court case defending their privacy; and
- be prepared to endure public execration from Google's apologists (look at how IT press overseas is treating the US couple taking the court case against Google).
All of which, I 'umbly submit m'lud, is purest bollocks. I don't think every person who thinks "what? That's my house!" needs to be fully rational about it.
If someone wants a silent telephone number, they're not asked to provide a couple of lawyers and fight a case. I don't see why Google StreetView is different.
Now, I'm not expert in privacy law, nor the deep philosophy of privacy, but the "right to be left alone" (as some American judge once described it) seems to leave room at least for the argument that Google is invading privacy.
Away from the centre of the debate, out among people who aren't IT experts, the adjective I've heard associated most often with StreetView is “creepy” (and it tells you just how far Google has wandered from its users – what company would not be terrified to be thought of in such terms?).
The anonymity of Google StreetView – I don't know who took the pictures, they took them when I wasn't at home, and I don't know who's viewing the pictures – all of these inspire a feeling of creepiness about the whole thing.
Do people have to be completely rational explaining their feelings? I can't think why. And even if the feeling is irrational, it's out there. The legalistic and spin-driven responses don't make the feeling go away; in fact, they probably make it worse.
It's Just Like a Newspaper?
I have heard this kind of defense: nobody could stop a newspaper publishing a picture of their house, what's different about Google StreetView?
I can see a difference.
If someone's street appears on the front page (and it's not because of something like a particularly bloody murder or car crash!), there's probably going to be excitement at first — "wow, we're famous!" So maybe people are irrational, except ...
... your house doesn't get put on the front page every day, forever. Today's paper is forgotten tomorrow. And even online, the archives aren't universally available forever. And people don't search 100 years of newspapers to see whether Richard's house was in the paper once, and even if they find a shot from 1927, it doesn't tell you anything about today.
With no sense of newsworthiness associated with StreetView, there's no counterbalancing excitement; and there's no rollover of the content — Joe Sixpack's house is still there tomorrow, the day after, and so on forever.
And for all the “global” pretentions that newspapers give themselves, they remain essentially localised. People feel (again irrationally) some small sense of local ownership of their newspapers, and even global media know this, which is why state-based newspapers still exist in Australia.
The scope and scale of any newspaper is nothing like the scope and scale of Google. What's published in the Sydney Morning Herald is associated with a certain "Sydneyness"; what happens on Google has no local connection that the punters can see; and that probably feeds into the various other forms of resentment that people might feel.
Really, most of the pro-StreetView arguments I've heard are really, really lame. Apart from "it's not illegal" or "it's really cool", what really strong argument is there that StreetView's right to exist is so strong that it trumps any objection?
Returning to the "Joe Sixpack" point of view again; if all people can find to defend StreetView is to parrot Google's arrogant "you can't stop us", then the defense just sounds like fans saying "hands off our toys"
“If there's nothing wrong you've got nothing to hide” has been trotted out in defense of StreetView, and here I have very strong feelings. This is such a creepy argument that I can't believe anyone but the most rabid, foam-flecked-lips jackbooted hoon of the Far Right even proposes it.
Privacy is not based on “trying to hide something shameful”. It's about trying to own and control some small piece of everyday life – and it's one facet of that precious diamond called freedom. The tyranny of surveillance is no less tyrannical merely because it's practised by a company whose founders were once geek heroes.
Google is a very long way out of touch with the ordinary citizen. It's huge, and it's still the default search page for a huge number of users, so maybe it can afford to be. But it's pure folly for media to make themselves similarly distant from the people who are our readers.
Google isn't listening to Joe Sixpack – but isn't it more important for the media to reflect Joe's life and interests than for us to reflect Google's interests? Or are we all convinced that Joe's small irrationalities and feelings and concerns are so trivial, and StreetView is so world-changing and important, that Joe Sixpack is just roadbed for the Google steamroller?