Google photos raise privacy issue in Japan


Without ever setting foot in a neighborhood, Google Inc.’s Street View service allows anyone to take a tour by computer.

Type an address into the program and in an instant you are virtually whisked to the desired spot in any of 12 cities in Japan, including Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka. Launched Aug. 5, the service, operated by Google’s Japan unit, uses photos taken from cars cruising the streets.

The U.S. parent, owner of the world’s most visited Internet search engine, began the service in the U.S. in May last year. It’s now available in Australia and some European countries.

While some Japanese users may have wanted the service to be available here sooner, others are troubled by the potential for invasion of privacy.

Although roads may be considered public property, Japanese cultural norms say that pedestrians should not look into private spaces, argues blogger Osamu Higuchi, an Internet-related entrepreneur.

“It isn’t suitable in this society to have our private affairs disclosed to the world via computers,” he said, noting people wandering around looking into other people’s houses will draw the attention of police, and thus the Street View service makes it easier for burglars to plot their crimes.

For its part, Google is careful to keep the service within the law.

For example, the California-based company blurs the faces of people who appear in the street scenes or shows them from behind to make sure they are unidentifiable, a practice that ensures the service’s legality, lawyers say. The company also welcomes requests for the deletion of problematic images.

Although spokeswoman Atsuko Doi of Google’s Japan unit said the company doesn’t disclose how many requests it has received or whether all the images in question have been deleted, “We react to all the inquiries appropriately.”

Google is facing a lawsuit over Street View in the U.S. A Pennsylvania couple, Aaron and Christine Boring, sued the company in April for invasion of privacy, claiming that to get the photos of their home, which is on a private road, Google’s car must have entered their property.

New York-based Web site The Smoking Gun posted Google’s response to the charge: “Complete privacy does not exist. . . . Unless there is a clear expression such as a gate, fence, or ‘keep out’ sign indicating that the public is not permitted to enter, anyone may approach a home by a walkway, driveway, or any other route commonly used by visitors, without liability for trespass.”

Nevertheless, Google removed its Street View photos of the Boring residence and swimming pool after the couple filed the lawsuit, according to The Smoking Gun.

Google is not likely to face similar lawsuits in Japan as the company’s Japan unit said it only takes photos from public roads.

Also, Google’s policy of blurring faces will probably make it difficult for anyone to claim their privacy has been violated, said Koji Ishimura, a law professor at Hakuoh University in Tochigi Prefecture.

For example, the image of a couple entering a love hotel in Osaka made its way to the 2 Channel Internet bulletin board, but this cannot be considered an infringement of privacy because the pair were shot from behind, according to legal experts, including Ishimura.

However, Ishimura pointed out that this privacy issue won’t be resolved until such a case is brought to court.

“Ordinary Japanese don’t have a strong sense of protecting the right to their image. We haven’t talked enough about how to protect the rights of people who don’t even own a PC,” he said.

Kazuo Hizumi, a lawyer at Tokyo-Kyodo Law Office, said names clearly legible on the gate of a house, say, on Street View cannot be considered a rights violation because they can be viewed from a public thoroughfare. But views inside homes or the name plates of well-known people may be problematic, he said.

Though not a legal violation, photos of homes can cause other problems, Hizumi said. For example, owners of luxurious houses could become the target of robbery or of unsolicited sales calls after appearing on Street View.

He likened the situation to the case of a farmer in the Tohoku region who made a huge profit from the sale of farmland and was subsequently listed as a top taxpayer in the municipality. According to Hizumi, the house was broken into, prompting the National Tax Agency to stop disclosing taxpayer rankings in 2006.

However, Google is unlikely to be ordered to pay compensation for such losses unless a robber is arrested and it is proved the perpetrator used Street View to decide which house to target, Ishimura said.

“After all, it’s all about the balance between Google’s right to do business and the right to personal privacy. If the government regulates Google, will other media have to be regulated?” he asked.

Because the line between Google’s disclosure of photos of anything on the street and the media’s right to reveal newsworthy information is difficult to draw, judicial experts will probably have to conclude that Google’s right to freedom of expression outweighs personal privacy rights, he said.

“If you think of human rights, obviously it is better without Street View,” he said.