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Can An Entire City Get Itself Removed From Google Maps? Why North Oaks, Minnesota Is Trying, But May Not Succeed


Wednesday, Jun. 18, 2008

Google is attempting to create a comprehensive map of the world – with photos of individual streets and even houses – through Google Maps. Recently, however, the entire community of North Oaks, Minnesota – which has 4,500 residents – asked Google Maps to remove the images of all of its residents’ homes from the website.

Previously, through Google’s “Street View” application, anyone could see photos of the homes in North Oaks, which had been photographed by Google photographers from the nearest road. “Street View” offers the same kinds of photos with respect to numerous American cities. But North Oaks is unusual: It is a “private” city, with roads owned entirely by residents. (Each homeowner owns part of the land where the street is located, and grants each other resident an easement of right of way to travel on his or her property.) Thus, although North Oaks is not a gated community, visitors are greeted by a “No Trespassing” sign that is meant to serve as a gate.

Accordingly, North Oaks’s City Council informed Google in January that Google’s camera crews had trespassed when they photographed its residents’ homes. The Council asked Google to either remove the images, or risk being cited for violating the city's anti-trespassing ordinance. Google removed the images, which now cannot be seen.

Though North Oaks may be right that the Google photographers technically were trespassing, are North Oaks properties truly immune from website views? In this column, I’ll consider that question.

Google’s Controversial Street View Function: Can North Oaks Effectively Opt Out?

Since its introduction last spring, Street View has caused controversy. The Pentagon, for example, prohibited Google Maps from taking any photos of military installations. A husband and wife in Pittsburgh sued Google claiming that photos of their home taken from a private road in front of their house violated their right to privacy. Google also receives a small number of requests from individuals who want images of their homes removed from the Google Maps program. Google accedes to these requests.

Generally, it is entirely legal to take photos of private residences and the people therein – as long one is not trespassing on private property. The theory is there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in areas that can easily be seen from public streets. There are some exceptions to this rule though – such as peeping tom or anti-voyeurism statutes, and a California law that forbids taking photos with a telephoto lens that otherwise could not be taken without trespassing.

But in North Oaks, a stranger is trespassing wherever he or she goes. Should the legal analysis be different? What if a large city privatized its streets so that no photographers could operate there? Would a First Amendment question be raised? What if that city were New York? When is an area too big to be private for these purposes?

Why North Oaks Is Still Legally On View Online: Satellite Images Of High Quality

These questions, while interesting, may soon be mooted by technological innovation, at least in the Google Maps scenario – for Google does not need to trespass to get the pictures it needs. While the Street View images are gone, one can still view the homes of North Oaks on the Internet. Satellite images of the city are still visible on Google Maps, Google Earth and Microsoft and Yahoo mapping applications. These photos are taken from space and since space is deemed “public,” the same privacy rights do not apply. (There is a concept of aerial trespass – meaning that a photographer could not get into a hot air balloon or glide over a private homeowner’s yard if he or she were interfering with the homeowner’s use of the property – but photography from outer space would not constitute aerial trespass.)

In the past, a photo of someone’s home from outer space would be vastly different from a photo taken on a street in front of the same house. But as remote imaging and photography improve, they may provide images nearly identical to those taken by the Google drivers.

Thus, in the end, North Oaks may have won a small victory in keeping Google’s photographers off of its streets – but lost the larger war, for it can’t stop satellite images. In the end, it may be futile to try and keep photos of its homes off the Internet. Even a physical gate can’t keep satellite cameras out.

Anita Ramasastry is a visiting professor at the National University of Ireland - Galway and an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and a Director of the Shidler Center for Law, Commerce & Technology. She has previously written on business law, cyberlaw, computer data security issues, and other legal issues for this site, which contains an archive of her columns.

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