Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Privacy Lawsuit Against Google Earth

I am sure by now that most of you have heard about the lawsuit that a couple is bringing against Google for trespass and invasion of privacy in connection with StreetView. They are seeking $25,000 in damages. It does not appear to me that the couple have a viable claim. Given the facts described in the complaint it is hard to imagine that they have suffered $25,000 in damages, particularly since Google apparently removed the images in question once it was made aware of the issue. As for their trespass claim, I am certainly not an expert in this area, but it is my understanding that a sign that states "Private Road" may simply mean that that it is not maintained by the local government, not necessarily that to drive on it would constitute a trespass. (I do note that their claim did raise an interesting legal question as to whether the value of their property might somehow have dimished because the pictures were displayed on the internet. Although it does not seem that the plaintiffs could prove that in this case, one can imagine a potential set of circumstances that could be more favorable to a plaintiff.)

A couple of other thoughts. In doing some research about this case it seems that people are focusing on Google's right to take a picture from a public space. However, there has been less discussion on how that picture is being used and distributed. Many states prohibit the use of an individual's likeness for commercial purposes without their permission. I do not know of any states that have gone so far as to protect the use of an image of an individual's home, etc. against unauthorized commercial use. However, I would not be surprised if some state legislators' attempt to introduce such legislation in the future.

Also, in my opinion this is not simply an issue for Google, Microsoft, etc., but also the companies that provide them other types of spatial data. Experience has shown that in such cases, plaintiff's lawyers are going to sue everyone in the product chain and let the court system figure out who is liabile. (I note that in one article I read the reporter asked the attorney in the case if he was considering bringing a class action lawsuit . .. .) Even if a company ultimately prevails, litigation is expensive in terms of both time and money. Therefore it is important when at all possible in a commercial setting to define how your data is being used and just as importantly how it should not be used. Also, it could be helpful to get an affirmative covenant from the customer that it will comply with applicable privacy laws, etc.

1 comment:

pete said...

Google came 100 yards onto our private property to phot our house, which cannot be seen from the road. We accept the van driver may have made a mistake, but google won't correct it or remove it. So we'd be happy to sue them for that reason. If they responded to requests, we would be less angry.