Switzerland’s Bundesgericht handed Google a big victory on Friday by allowing the company to publish images without completely obscuring private information.
GoogleEarth introduced a popular new service in 2012 when it videotaped Swiss ski runs and published the images on as part of its “Street View” product. In February, Bloomberg reported that Google planned to add images of a total of 350 kilometers (218 miles) of Swiss ski pistes.
The ski version of Street View has been a great PR tool for Swiss resorts. As Daniel Lugen, a resort director in Zermatt put it, “[a] picture is worth a thousand words…This will give people a sneak preview and hopefully get them motivated to get out on the slopes.’’ However, some questioned whether Street View conformed with Swiss law.
Switzerland has some of world’s strictest privacy laws. Swiss privacy advocates filed suit against Google in 2009, alleging that Street View violated Swiss law because it failed to ensure complete anonymity of private information. The heart of the complaint was that as Google’s cameras snapped pictures of Swiss streets or ski slopes, they also captured images of people and identifying information on buildings. The complainants contended that uploading the images without individualized permission violated Swiss law. The Bundesgericht disagreed.
The court held that, with the exception of certain highly sensitive places such as schools, courts and hospitals, Google did not need to guarantee absolute anonymity for persons pictured on Street View. The ski version of street view faced only minimal privacy concerns as the slopes were closed prior to filming, so very few people would have had their images captured by the cameras. However, Google had threatened to remove all images, including ski images, if the court found its service to be unlawful.
As an aside, Google has no such legal issues in the United State. American law differs greatly with regard to the degree of protection it affords to people in public places. In the US, persons in public places have extremely limited privacy rights, on the theory that anything which one knowingly exposes to the public is not private.
Google has not definitively stated that it will not make good on its threat to cancel all of its Swiss Street View product, but hopefully by allowing publishing without the need for costly pixelation of private information, Street View and its fantastic ski slope images can remain in place.