Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Google Street View: Are We Looking At It The Right Way?

Google Street View has received a great deal of attention since it was introduced in May 2007. Much of this attention has been negative, as citizens, government officials, the media, politicians and now even lawyers have raised concerns about what is being collected, how it is being used, how long it is being kept, and what are Google's ultimate intentions in assembling such a huge database of information and imagery. Some of this criticism appears to be justified, given Google's recent admission it was accidently collecting certain information, including snippets of emails, passwords and browsing history.

However, shouldn't we also be blaming government officials, policymakers, lawyers, etc. for not developing a consistent legal and policy framework with respect to spatial data upon which a company like Google can develop its business strategy? (I use Google here because it is the company that you most frequently hear about, but other companies are collecting similar types of spatial data.)

We are currently seeing an explosion in applications using spatial data. However, location information and data is not new. There has been plenty of time for the legal and policy communities to catch up or at least prepare for mapping in the digital era. Mapquest sent the first map over a very young Internet in 1996. High-resolution commercial satellite imagery has been available since early 2000 and medium-resolution satellite imagery has been available since the mid-1980's. President Clinton did away with GPS Selective Availability, enabling the public to get access to better location information from the network of GPS satellites, in 2000. Even Google Earth has been with us since 2005.

All of these milestones, and many others contributed to where we are today. However, governments have been unable or unwilling to develop and implement new laws and policies that reflect the current technological environment. For example, government and businesses continue to launch remote-sensing satellites, but most countries do not have a transparent and consistent policy with respect to remote sensing or the data that is collected. Similarly, government officials regularly express concerns about location privacy, but there has been very little done to change privacy regimes to the new reality. Instead, governments try to figure out how to apply existing - and outdated - laws and policies. (The courts make an impact but it’s piecemeal and on a case by case basis.) Countries spend millions in U.S. dollars on technology to share spatial data between government agencies at the local, national and international level, but give almost no thought to the legal issues that complicate data sharing from a practical standpoint.

It should not be surprising therefore, that in this legal and policy vacuum, companies such as Google and others bump up to - and sometimes cross - the line of what is considered acceptable, and in some cases legal. They do not have the luxury, nor the mentality, of the status quo. (And our world would be worse if they did.) In many instances they need to push forward, for both competitive and technological reasons and in doing so, frequently test the legal limits. So, as government officials, policymakers and lawyers world-wide research what Google did or didn't do with respect to Street View, perhaps they can also examine what steps they could be taking to make their laws and policies more aligned with current realities and more in tune with today's spatial environment.

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