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Suing Google Street View: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?


Suing Google Street View: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Photograph by Kievit/Redux

Conventional wisdom holds that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear. The increasing ubiquity of unsleeping electronic eyes demonstrates that we all have something to hide, whether or not we believe it. Much of our daily lives could, when scrutinized without context, appear sinister or eccentric. This lesson has been learned the hard way by a still-anonymous (at time of writing) citizen of a town of France’s Maine-et-Loire region. A camera car operated by Google Street View, photographing the burg in question, happened to catch our man urinating in his front garden. The image has subsequently gone viral.

At this point, the only proper response is juvenile tittering, followed by sympathy. Such misfortune could have befallen any of us. Everybody—come on, we’re all grownups here—has taken relief in a location without a roof. In France, it’s indeed a cornerstone of the culture: This is the nation that gave us the purpose-built outdoor convenience called the pissoire. The sensible course for Street View’s inadvertent victim, who wasn’t the first, would have been to sportingly absorb the ribbing of his friends and wait for the online mob to be distracted by the next theremin-playing cat. Instead, incredibly, he has retained counsel and is seeking to force Google to remove the image. No matter that his face is blurred and that no one who didn’t intimately know the town of 3,000 people could possibly recognize him. He also wants €10,000 ($13,115) by way of compensation, which seems a low price to put on dignity, even for that of a Frenchman.

This appears an elementary failure to heed the Streisand Effect—the law which holds that attempting to suppress online information will inevitably result in its widespread dissemination. (The principle is named for Barbra Streisand, whose efforts to remove pictures of her Malibu home from the Internet made it one of the most famous dwellings in California). Perhaps the plaintiff is playing a cannier game. Before Street View’s car drove past, he was just a middle-aged Frenchman; had he not made a fuss, that is what he would have remained. However, in a world limitlessly willing to confer gratifying and profitable celebrity upon unlikely candidates, he might yet parlay this apparently idiotic lawsuit into chat show appearances, a reality show, and a branded range of bathroom appliances. From village idiot to global village idiot. He may not have known it at the time, but he was aiming at the stars.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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