Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is Google Street View a Violation of Privacy?

Although Google Street View is convenient and fun, several people have showed concern about it and there have even been some court cases as a result of Google's actions. Japan has a similar case, Jane Doe v. Google Japan Inc., which is called "Google Street View Case". Let me introduce this case briefly.

The case is somewhat similar to a well known American case of Boring v. Google, Inc., 598 F.Supp.2d 695 (W.D. Pa. 2009). Intuitively, you may think that what Google did in the Japanese case is worse than in the Boring case. In the Japanese case, Google accidentally took a picture of some underwear that a young woman had hung out on the balcony to dry. That picture was disclosed in Google Street View. The woman found the picture and sued Google Japan for invasion of privacy. After the woman filed a complaint, Google removed the picture from Google Street View.

The court found that the picture was not a high-resolution image, so the only thing that people using Google Street View could see was some kind of laundry being hung out, it was difficult to see that it was underwear. Based on that fact, the trial court concluded that Google's actions were within the range that the plaintiff should tolerate and rendered their judgment on the side of Google. Jane Doe v. Google Japan Inc., Home Page of Supreme Court (Fukuoka District Court, March 16, 2011). The woman appealed.

The appeal court affirmed. Jane Doe v. Google Japan Inc., unreported (Fukuoka High Court, July 13, 2012). The appeal court decided on two alleged privacy invasions: the invasion of privacy by photographing the underwear and the invasion of privacy by disclosing the photo. First, the court found as a general principle that when the photographing invades the interest of peace in a private life and is evaluated as illegal, such photographing consists of a tort of invasion of privacy. However, regarding this case, as the alleged underwear in the picture was far away from the place the photo was taken, the court found that it was difficult to even conclude that it was a picture of laundry. Therefore the court concluded that from a general point of view, the interest of peace in a private life was not invaded and thus denied the invasion of privacy by the photographing of it. Regarding the disclosure, the court first pointed out the same issue as the photographing. The court then pointed out that the disclosure was conducted not in a way to unreasonably attract the attention of the viewers. As a result, the court also denied the invasion of privacy.

One important thing to note is that at the time the case was argued in trial court, the plaintiff litigated by herself without any support from a lawyer. As a result, the plaintiff failed to secure the important evidence of the digital data of the picture. Before the lawyers became involved, Google had already removed the picture. So, the courts decided the outcome of the case based on the picture which the plaintiff had printed out in an Internet cafe, which the court described as being difficult to tell whether it was laundry or not. It may be another example of the difficulty of conducting a cyberlaw litigation without support from an expert lawyer. 

DISCLAIMER: "IT Law issues in Japan" only provides general information about Japanese information technology law and does not, under any circumstances, constitute legal advice. You should first obtain the advice of professional legal counsel who is qualified in Japan before acting or refraining from acting based on this blog.

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