Privacy International have said that Google's new Street View tool could breach data protection laws if people's faces are shown, according to the BBC, whereas the creator of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has made it clear that the success of the web has been because it's open for everybody, and that it needs to stay that way to continue growing in technological development and size.
So why is it that whenever there is a privacy controversy, you can't seem to read a story without "Europe" being in there somewhere, whether "-an", "Commission" or "Union" following it? I'll explain. Beware, this could turn into a gratuitous rant.
First I am British, then a European, after that "a bit of an arse", but that's unimportant. The British don't really want to be part of Europe as such; we don't mind sharing the geological space with the other countries, but we very much want to remain independent with our own Government, our own monarchy, but most of all, our own currency.
The European Commission (EC) thinks they govern all of Europe with their own laws, bringing together the leaders of each "registered" country. As far as I can see, as someone who very much enjoys politics and how the systems work, it's nothing much more than a power-hungry trip on the part of the EC.
In this case, the European Union (EU) and the EC aren't involved as such; it's more a case of individual European countries not being too happy with people's faces being immortalised in Google's Street View. I can see how this could be a major worry, a person being pinned to an exact place at an exact time and paraded to the world, whether the world knows them or not.
But back in May, Google had already started rolling out face blurring protocols and algorithms, to protect the identity of those that the "Googlemobile" picks up in the imagery it collects.
The laws over in the Europe are much different to the ones in the US in terms of public photography. Whilst I understand in the US, you are legally allowed to take photos of people and anything in public viewing without the consent of others, whereas in the UK and some other European countries, you are required to obtain the permission of each person photographed - especially if the image will be then released into the public domain like the Internet.
Students are lucky, as we are learning and dealing with technology which helps shape the rest of our lives, and a good proportion of these things simply couldn't be possible without the awesomeness of the Internet and the web. Street View is a mild example of this, allowing developers to plug into the power of reality viewing of real world events and places in a virtual place on the web. But with these spates of controversy over privacy, this is making the next generation of IT users worried about the future of the web.
Privacy International wrote a letter to Google asking certain questions, what seems to be a more informal exchange of banter rather than anything official. However in response, Google's letter made note of responding to the face-blurring technology:
"With the new Tour de France imagery we have continued our use of face blurring technology. We actually launched this technology publically in early May, when we refreshed our imagery in Manhattan, New York..."
"...I'm therefore slightly puzzled that you were told by someone at Google just 6 weeks ago that we were having problems with this technology, when it was already in use."
Google's letter of response to Privacy International admits the technology isn't perfect, that license plates or faces can be missed on rare occasion and not always blurred. With the few they do miss, users can easily report a face or license plate for "extra blurring". Not only that, if a user sees an image of themselves, "they can ask for the image to be removed from the product entirely", giving the user the control of their own imagery in Street View.
This isn't something they're doing behind the scenes either, unlike some companies which try and hide their "mistakes" or bad press. They've blogged about it, explained it, and even brought up points by Google's own privacy counsel highlighting the importance of balancing a great technology, whilst keeping the users safe by ensuring their privacy rights are not violated.
I spoke to a Google UK spokesperson yesterday evening, and asked her how these privacy worries could stifle technological developments such as Street View.
"It's about balancing the law, the laws which we abide by anyway, and with the innovation we're creating, they still very much take into account cultural norms. Google have listened to what people want, and people want these technologies, including Street View. But with this, Google is also respectful of people’s privacy by introducing the face blurring algorithm."
She told me that with the Tour de France 2008 starting, the information and data commissions in Germany and France are perfectly happy about Street View and the face-blurring technologies; it just seems to be a problem for the UK. Another spokesperson in a press statement spoke positively about the product itself:
"Yes, we are taking photographs to bring the Street View product to Europe. Our users have been asking for the service ever since we launched in the US and we are very excited about bringing it to Europe. Soon people from all over the world will be able to explore the beautiful cities of Europe right from their desks.
Street View is a new feature of Google Maps that enables users to view and navigate within 360 degree street level imagery of various cities in the US. Street View provides users with a rich, immersive browsing experience directly in Google Maps, enabling greater understanding of a specific location or area."
Even though Google are making steps to protect the privacy of others, and claims "it complies with all local laws", it seems Tim Berners-Lee may not be able to get his wish for the web to stay open all when the big companies creating these products get knocked down at the last hurdle.