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Japan: Debate over Google Street View continues

Categories: East Asia, North America, Japan, U.S.A., Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Ideas, Law, Technology

Less than two weeks after Google rolled out Street View [1] in Japan, debate continues in the blogs [2] [ja] over whether the new service is an appropriate match for Japanese culture and urban residential life. A letter addressed to the people at Google [3] [ja], written by IT professional Osamu Higuchi [4], drew a huge reaction last week, bookmarked nearly 700 times [5] [ja] on Hatena bookmarks [6] [ja] (Japan's most popular social bookmarking service). The translation of that letter [7] was then picked up abroad in both the U.S. [8] and the U.K. [9], in Japan both in English [10] and in Japanese [11], and eventually even made its way onto Chinese bulletin boards [12] [zh].

With Osamu Higuchi's Letter to Google making waves in Japan and elsewhere, a debate erupted over whether the statements contained in the letter were actually true or not. Early comments at Higuchi's blog were supportive. The first commenter, Jun Ohmizu, writes:


I am completely in agreement with you.
If my own child was shot in the footage,
even if you couldn't see their face,
I think I would still harbor resentment.
Really disappointing, Google…

The next commenter followed up with a similar sentiment:


You've really captured well the root of the uncomfortable feeling that I also felt [about Street View].
Certainly it satisfies a certain sense of curiosity to see these places that you normally wouldn't be able to see, and there is a kind of guilty pleasure in that, but when you really think about it carefully, it's actually pretty scary.

A couple comments later, though, and a different view:


I think you're all worrying about this too much.


In terms of Japan's uniqueness, it is certainly true that we have a culture in which people hang their underwear in places that everybody can see, exposing what is private to the community of the area. But from the start, the only ones concerned enough to make any noise about this are in the end the people who are familiar and already belong to the community.


Seeing familiar things on Street View, people all think to themselves the same thing: “Oh no, someone in my family is on TV”, and then they get embarrassed about it and make a lot of noise. But that noise is confined to within the community of people who are in their area.


In a metaphorical sense, it's like when [people] talk about the threat of hackers, even though the ones who cause the real damage are colleagues or people who are close to you.
“Your house is on Google” — it doesn't mean anything more or less than that, does it?

Aside from the original letter itself, one of the most popular blog entries on the topic of Street View was posted by blogger Taku Nakajima [13] (id:essa) at the Uncategorizable blog, who collected together and translated excerpts [14] [ja] from English-language comment threads [15] on Higuchi's letter by Internet users and bloggers such as Robert Scoble [16]. Among the many bookmark comments [17] [ja] to that post, some debated whether there was broad agreement with Higuchi among Japanese bloggers in what he wrote.

In one bookmark, user id:gohshi reported that they had surveyed all the bookmark comments [18] [ja] on the original Letter to Google (in Japanese), and reported the breakdown: 112 agreed with Higuchi, 93 were neutral, and 65 were against.

Hatena user id:matsunaga, who originally raised the issue in a bookmark [19] [ja], posted a question [20] [ja] to Hatena Question [21] asking users about Street View, with three possible answers: (1) “[Street View,] what's that?” (何それ?知りません。), “Doesn't bother me. Seems like a good thing.” (別に気にならない。いいと思う。) and (3) “It's creepy and inexcusable. Stop it right now.” (気持ち悪い。許せない。やめろ。). Out of a total of 300 respondents, 52 (17.3%) chose (1), 123 (41.0%) chose (2), and 125 (41.7%) chose (3), indicating a much closer split of opinions, although as one blogger noted [22] [ja], respondents were mostly people within the IT industry and not typical Japanese citizens.

Of those who were against the statements in the letter, a post by blogger id:nihen [23], entitled “Why I don't feel uncomfortable about Street View in Japan, and the connection to Private Information Protection Law” (日本のストリートビューが気持ち悪いと思わないワケと個人情報保護法との関係), made the case in perhaps the most straightforward terms. In the post, id:nihen takes the whole Letter to Google apart and responds to different sections one by one [24], starting with the statement by Higuchi that:


The residential roads of Japan's urban areas are a part of people's living space, and it is impolite to photograph other people's living spaces

id:nihen responds this way:

たしかに「得体の知れない人」がうちのまわりでうろちょろしながらカメラで撮影していたら無礼というか気持ち悪いと思い通報するでしょう。しかしそれが気持ち悪いのは「得体が知れない」からであってたとえばそれが交通量測定のためですとか、町内mapを作るためですとかgoogle street viewを作るためですとかそういうことが分かっていれば何も気持ち悪いとは思わない。むしろ「いつもご苦労様です」ぐらいなもんだ。そういう意味で googleが事前に撮影を行っていることを明らかにしていなかったことやgoogle号を積極的に公開していない姿勢は批判されてよいとは思う。しかしそれはもう過ぎてしまったことだ。

Certainly if a “suspicious person” was loitering around the area where I live and taking pictures, [I would consider it] rude, or perhaps I should say I would feel uncomfortable about it and report it to the police. However, the reason that I would be uncomfortable about that is that it's a “suspicous person”. If on the other hand for example [the person was taking pictures] to measure traffic volume, or to make a map of the neighborhood, or to make Google Street View, if I knew that what this person was doing was one of these things, then I wouldn't feel uncomfortable about it. On the contrary, I would thank the person for their work. So in that sense, I think it is fair that Google has been criticized for not making clear beforehand that they were going to be filming [these areas], and for not pro-actively disclosing to the public the Google car. But that's already done now, it's over.

To this statement in the Letter to Google by Higuchi:


In our way of living, you do not unilaterally, and in a machine-readable form, lay open people's living spaces to the whole world

id:nihen responds:


It would be stupid to argue with this [statement], but this is just the evolution of our daily living. At the end of the day, as long as it is limited to what is permissible according to the law, this is just something that we need to deal with. There is no point in getting alarmed and making a big commotion about the fact that cars coming right to the front of our homes is not in line with our way of living.

The same blogger (id:nihen) also collected together and classified responses from other bloggers to Street View in a separate post [25] [ja]. Hatena user id:umeten [26] did the same in two separate entries, with a post on views for Street View [27] [ja] and another on views against the new service [28] [ja].

One of the sharpest rebuttals to Higuchi's post was by Nobuo Ikeda, who referred to the Letter to Google as “nonsense” and questioned the very idea that Japanese even have any concept of “privacy” [29]:


First of all, this cultural treatise by Osamu Higuchi that has been showcased all over the world, it's just nonsense. The sense of awareness about defending one's personal space is far stronger among Westerners [than it is among Japanese]. I'm sure there are many people who remember the case of the young Japanese boy who stepped into someone's yard on Halloween and was shot. The “feeling of discomfort about having one's home filmed by other people” is something that has nothing to do with the East or the West, and there have been lawsuits [over this] in Europe and America.



The basic point here is that privacy is not a human right that should be protected by law. It is not a universal right, it is just the particular concept advocated in a paper in 1890 by [sic] Warren-Brendeis in the form of a “right of famous people not to have their private life photographed”. There was a controversial debate in the 1980s about whether privacy should be treated as a human right, but the prevailing view across the world was that, since this would violate the right to freedom of expression, it was not desirable to protect [privacy] through positive law. In Japanese law as well, the word “privacy” is avoided.


Even so, however, Japanese from the start do not know this concept called privacy (there is not even a translation for it), so there is a strong tendency to fall under the impression that to be “progressive” is to think of this term in an absolute sense. At the “Convention on the Protection of Human Rights” [“Jinken Yougo Taikai”/人権擁護大会], the Japan Federation of Bar Associations [“Nichibenren”/日本弁護士連合会] announced the “sovereignty of personal information”. When lawyer Hirotaka Fujiwara [藤原宏高], who made this claim, was asked in a panel discussion, “okay, so if I demanded that you delete ‘personal information’ from a text in which you criticized me, would you comply?”, he became completely speechless.

From Twitter, IT journalist Daisuke Tsuda [30] [津田大介 [31]] posted a simple question [32] [ja] related to the issue of privacy:


The Japanese government and Google, which can we trust more? — there's also this simple question.

An earlier one-line tweet by Daisuke Tsuda sparked yet another bookmarks thread [33] [ja].

Many bloggers meanwhile questioned Higuchi's depiction of urban areas. In comments at Higuchi's blog, Eru-san writes:


Just one point.
I'm Japanese and I live in an urban area, but I'm really sorry, I do not have this sense [that you have] that “Japan's urban areas are a part of people's living space”.


I can't help but feel uncomfortable when you use expressions like “we” [“bokura”/僕ら], this style of speaking that makes it seem like you are representing all people living in urban areas of Japan.

At Baldanders.info, another blogger offers a perspective on privacy as someone who grew up outside of these urban areas [34]:


Maybe it's because I'm from the country, but although I can sympathize with the idea that [Japanese] alleyways [“roji”/路地] are a part of the living space, I don't think that this is connected to the problem of privacy. The reason [I say this] is that this “living space” is a shared space of the neighborhood community in the area, and is not a private space.


For point of comparison, think of this as something like the “dirt floor” [“doma”/土間] in old [Japanese] houses. The dirt floor was created inside the house, but in actual fact it has come to be a part of the space that is shared with people living in the community. So for example it was an everyday custom that, even when the family of the house was out, people from the neighborhood would actually enter the house and have tea there.

つまり,その「生活空間」に入ってくる Street View という「異物」は私的空間を侵すものではなく,ご近所という共有空間を侵してくる。これはプライバシーの問題とは思えないけど,(もしかしたら)日本特有の密な空間とその外部との関係について議論するきっかけになるんじゃないかと興味を持っている。それはおそらく日常のセキュリティ管理にもインパクトを与えるはずである。

In other words, this “foreign substance” Street View which has entered into people's “living space” is not something that intrudes on people's private space, but rather something that intrudes on the shared space of the neighborhood. So although I don't see it as a problem of privacy, I do hope that this issue will form the starting point for a discussion on the relationship between the tight spaces that are peculiar to Japan and what is outside of these spaces. This must also have an impact on the way that security is managed in everyday life.

One comment [35] on the translation of Osamu Higuchi's letter pointed out the importance of Japan's architecture and sight angles on the way that Street View portrayed Japanese alleyways. Blogger and security researcher Hiromitsu Takagi [36] [ja], in an entry that received a large response [37] [ja], decided that he would actually go out and have a look at in person [38] at the areas that Street View covers, to see what things actually look like:


Now, when I found out that Google Maps’ “Street View” had been introduced in Japan, I right away took a look at various different places, but what I found was different from what I had expected. The Google car had penetrated into very narrow streets that had only barely enough space for cars to pass through, and what was especially unexpected to me was that footage had been taken from a very high vantage point, so that you could look down over the walls [around people's homes].

To have a look at what Takagi found, taking pictures from eye level and comparing them to what Street View shows, have a look at the original post [38] [ja].

Finally, many of the debates about Street View have been (understandably) confined to people in some way connected to the IT world. One blogger, Akihito Kobayashi [39], brought a bit of perspective into the whole debate by reporting on what his mom had to say when she saw Google's new service [40]:


Just by chance I had a chance to return to my parents’ home, so while I was there I showed my mom (whose age you can guess from the fact that her son is 35 years old) areas near their house on Street View. As soon as I showed it to her, she came back with:


“Oh my! Ew, that's creepy. What if it's used by robbers or something? It's scary, no?”


That was the answer. No no, mom, this is really interesting! — I was going to try to object like that, but then I stopped myself. Because I realized that if you think about it from the perspective of my mom's generation, this is the way people feel, and these kinds of things you can't change with logic.

Thanks to Taku Nakajima [13] for suggestions on this article.