Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Wisdom of Villagers? Google Street View stirs protest in the UK

When villagers in Broughton, England, stepped into the road and linked arms last week to block the progress of a Google Street View camera car, were they also blocking progress? Or were they demonstrating that the wisdom of ordinary folk can sometimes exceed that of the brightest, or richest, techno-geek?

Why wouldn't the villagers of England welcome a technology that is proving very popular in its land of origin, America, the ability to enjoy a 360 degree view of city streets, from street level? Well, when a journalist asks for comment I always say: There are three main points to consider.

1. Geography. Streets and sidewalks in English cities are typically narrower than they are in America. That puts the Google camera car very close to your front door. Take a look at this first image, from a street in Leeds.

Drive down the left hand side of this street with a camera mounted on the roof of your car and you are just a few yards from the front doors you are snapping.

(I used to live a few streets over from this one when I was a student at the University of Leeds, and we had no front garden at all, just a door that opened onto the sidewalk or "pavement".)

The upshot of this domestic geography is shots like the second one, of a young lady pushing her baby through the front doorway of a house in Coventry. As you can see this Google Street View also contains a clear view of the neighbor's living room. (I don't think that's a flat screen TV that I see over the fireplace--but maybe a few doors down you might get lucky.) I think a lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic would consider that image intrusive.

2. Crime. The"mob" in Broughton cited a recent spate of burglaries as one of their reasons for objecting to Google Street View and Americans should note that a home in England is twice as likely to be broken into as an American home. Furthermore, 53% of English burglaries occur when someone is at home (versus 13% in America).

As someone who has experienced being woken up in the middle of the night and seeing a burglar in an English home, I can tell you it gets the pulse racing and leaves a lasting impression. While English criminals are less likely to carry guns than their American counter-parts, the aggressive use of knives is widespread in the UK and rates of violent crime [other than murder] are higher in the UK than in the US. (I don't like to just assert a number like that wihtout a primary source, but here is a secondary source--aspiring criminologists take note, there is fame to be gained by publishing a thorough comparison of US/UK crime stats.)

In the UK burglary "case" with which I am personally familiar, the burglar had acquired knowledge of how to defeat a particular type of lock and was going from house-to-house in the middle of the night looking for, and entering, those that were fitted with such locks. How much safer and efficient, to do your research online, from the comfort of your sofa, using Street View?

3. Rights. In the comments of some Broughton residents I got a whiff of unease that has been brewing for some time, a sense that we, the people, are tired of corporations profiting from our existence. A bunch of companies, from credit reporting agencies to data aggregators, make their money off the fact that we exist. They sell information about me. And now one of the richest companies in the world is enhancing its profits with a snapshot of my house while big companies, Sears for example, charge you for using photographs of their "house." I sense the common man, and woman, is getting a little tired of this state of affairs. It doesn't feel quite right, even though it is hard to say exactly what is wrong with it.

So there you have the three points. And, as I would say to the interviewer, let me conclude by observing: The error often lies not in the act but in the reaction. Google's reaction was to say, in effect, "What's the big deal? It's easy for people to remove images." Oh yes, like the lady with the baby is going to be checking the status of her online identity every few weeks to see who's snapping her. I am reminded of the response companies used to give in the early days of spam, before spam became both imprudent and illegal: "What's the fuss? There's an easy way for consumers to get off the mailing list." The wisdom of folk suggests that Google has some serious work ahead if it is to avoid the emergence of a "Do not photo" list. Otherwise, Broughton may become a rallying cry for a whole lot more trouble to come.

I leave you with a question. What the heck is that plant growing in the living room of number 185?

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