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Japan: Street View and Public Space

Categories: East Asia, Japan, Law, Media & Journalism, Photography, Protest, Technology

The debate about Google's new Street View service in Japan [1], which sparked criticisms following its launch over a perceived lack of cultural sensitivity [2], has come back into the spotlight with the recent visit to Tokyo by Google vice president Kent Walker [3] [ja]. At a press conference on September 29th, Walker was bombarded with questions about the service [4] [ja], spending nearly all of the 30 minutes alloted for a question and answer period to answering them.

Responses at the press conference about how to request that images be removed from Street View in particular raised some eyebrows. An ITmedia article [5] [ja] reported that Google Japan director Kōichirō Tsujino [辻野晃一郎] had stated that people who could not check Street View themselves and confirm whether there were problems (i.e. people who do not have Internet access) should contact their regional administration office or consumer center. (Lack of Internet access is common among Japan's older generation, who may have only heard from friends that their home appears in Street View but never actually used the service themselves.)

One blogger who has been investigating Street View in great depth, security researcher Hiromitsu Takagi [6] [ja], found it hard to believe that such a statement could actually have been made. He wrote on September 29th [7]:


I was stunned when I read this. I find it hard to believe that he could have said this. Why would the government have to handle [the problem of] images that Google had taken?

Takagi took the step to call Google Japan directly [8] and find out whether Tsujino had actually made the statement, and what exactly was meant by the “regional administration contact point” [地域の行政窓口] to which people were apparently supposed to go for assistance. According to the person who answered the phone, as recorded in the transcript posted at Takagi's blog [9] [ja], Tsujino had indeed made the statement. When probed further, however, the Google representative was not able to specify in concrete terms where to go (beyond “commercial centers” and “regional administration offices”). ITmedia later appended a note apologizing and claiming that Tsujino had never in fact made the statement in question, leaving some with doubts about what had happened behind the scenes [10] [ja], and the underlying question still left unresolved.

Letter handed over by Google driver. Text version here [12] [ja]. Takagi notes that the letter is not well translated into Japanese.

This debate had only just ended, however, when another started. In a follow-up entry [12] [ja], Takagi reported that someone had contacted him about their experience bumping into a driver of one of the Google cars back when the photographs were originally being taken:


According to this person, the Google photography car was parking at a housing complex, so they inquired with the driver “Do you distinguish between public and private roads?”, at which point the driver, without answering the question, handed over the document in Figure 1 [letter above], and told this person to inquire with the company directly. The driver then took off very fast as if trying to escape, and apparently almost ran the person over.

The letter explains that the Google car is driving along public streets taking photographs of the scene that ordinary people can see from the road, and informs the reader that if they have further questions they can contact Google directly. According to Takagi, this person later called Google twice, first on August 28th and next on September 3rd, to find out if Google had in fact distinguished at all between public and private roads. It was during the second call that the caller got their answer:

情: 法律関係の人間に答えを聞きますという返答を頂いて、それで電話したんですけども、

Caller: I was told [the last time I called] that a legal person was going to be consulted, and so that's why I called.

グ: あー、そうですか、あの、公道私道というのもとくに法律で定められているものではないかと存じますので、とくにその必要もないかと思うんですけども。

Google: Oh, really, well, it is my understanding that public and private roads are not something established by law, so I don't think there is any particular need for that.

情: 法律で定められてますよ。

Caller: They sure are established by law.

グ: あはは、そうなんですか。あは。はい。

Google: Oh, really? Aha. I see.

The apparent lack of distinction between private and public roads seems to line up with the company's position in the U.S. [13], but as in cases elsewhere, it didn't go down well with many who heard about it. Hiroyuki Fujishiro [藤代裕之] at Gatonews, in an entry called “Google, the anti-social corporation [14]“, traced the problem to the attitude of Google as a corporation [15] [ja]:

通常企業の広報は話題になっている案件について情報共有を行い、回答について対策を行っています。この問い合わせは8月末のようですが、Googleは8 月5日の会見でストリートビューのプライバシー問題については問われているので、認識していないはずがありません。にもかかわらずこのような回答をするというのは、カスタマーサポートや広報・法務部、対応した個人の問題ではなく、Googleが企業としての姿勢がそうであるということを示しています。日本での問い合わせにまともに対応する気などないのでしょう。

Normally, a company's PR shares information about issues that are in the news, and takes measures to respond to them. This inquiry was apparently made at the end of August, but Google was asked about the privacy problems at a press conference on August 5th, so it must have known about them. The fact that they are nonetheless responding in this way indicates that this is not a problem of the individuals in customer support or public relations/legal departments, but rather the attitude of Google as a corporation. It doesn't seem that they have any intention to respond squarely to inquiries in Japan.

A blogger at Hatena's AnonymousDiary, on the other hand, came to exactly the opposite conclusion, arguing that Google should not be criticized as a company for breaking the law “somewhat” [16]:


There's all this talk about obeying the law, well what about P2P [peer-to-peer]?
Among those who criticize [Street View], there are people who hit speeds in their car well over the speed limit, so if they arrest [Winny developer Isamu] Kaneko for Winny,
then there must be people who would say that the car makers should be arrested as well, no?
Why is it that just because Google Street View violates the law somewhat, Google itself must be criticized?

One of many areas Takagi has investigated. This is a map from Google Street of the area in Yokohama shown in this link [18].

Yokohama city map of same area above, according to Takagi demonstrating that the Google car trespassed into private land in taking photographs. (Explore the area yourself here [18].)

Hatena user id:test600 expressed disappointment over Google's attitude [20] after reading in Takagi's blog entry:


Reading this, I have to say Google comes off as a company that is just doing whatever it likes.
It's hardly even responding.
But actually I think Street View itself is interesting.
I'm kind of glad when I see that neighborhoods or places I know are actually colored in blue.
Overconfident with their launch, I guess. Google-san.

Although Hiromitsu Takagi has written a great deal about Street View in Japan, he is not a lawyer, as some have pointed out [21]. There are lawyers, however, have been reading Takagi's posts. At the Hanamizuki Law Office blog of lawyers Masahiro Kobayashi [小林正啓] and Miyuki Sakurai [櫻井美幸], for example, the following comment [22] was made on earlier cases Takagi has raised about license plates [23] [ja] and camera height [24] [ja]:

もちろん,プライバシーの問題は間違いなくある。グーグルは自動的にぼかされているというが,容貌に限らず人物を特定する画像や,人家の内部がたまたま撮影された場合は,プライバシーの侵害になりうる。ただ,この問題は本質的な問題とはいえないのではないか。高木浩光氏は,「ストリートビューに写った自動車ナンバーは機械判読され得るレベル [23]」であるとか,撮影用のカメラの目線が高すぎて [24],通常の歩行者には見えない高みからの映像になっているとか主張している。これらの指摘はそれぞれもっともな点を含む。法的に反論しうる点もある。しかし,何となく,この不気味感の本質とは違うような気がするから,高木氏の主張の当否を論じても,ポイントからずれていってしまうような気がする。もし,高木氏が指摘するプライバシー上の問題が全て解決されたとしたなら,この不気味感は解消されるのだろうか?

Of course, there's no mistaking that there is a privacy problem. Google says that it automatically blurs [faces], but this is not limited to faces, there is also the potential for privacy infringement in cases in which images identify people, and where the inside of people's houses have been accidentally photographed. It doesn't seem to me, however, this is the essential problem though. Hiromitsu Takagi claims that “The numbers [plates] on cars photographed in Street View are potentially be machine-readable [23]“, and that the camera used for photographing is too high [24], at a height beyond the level of what can be seen by ordinary pedestrians. Each of these claims cover legitimate issues. There are also points that could be legally refuted. However, I somehow have the sense that these issues miss the essence of the uneasy feeling [I feel about Street View], and so to argue the right or wrong of Takagi's claims is to somehow miss the point, I think. I mean, suppose all the privacy problems that Takagi identifies were solved, would that really quell this uneasy feeling?

Another law blog that has discussed the street view debate is KSTK, which has featured a detailed multi-part series (part 1 [25] [ja], part 2 [26] [ja], part 3 [27] [ja]) on different legal aspects of the case. In part two of the series [26], the following comment is made about the protection of personal information:


My own value judgment on this is that it is natural to assume that people do not want photos of the interior of their fence-enclosed (see note) residence or estate (including the site) to be disclosed to other people without permission, and so it might be expected that that this information would be considered protected. In the case of Google Street View in particular, it seems to me that it should be kept in mind that it is not only images that have been made public, but also addresses at the same time.
Note: The blogger emphasizes that this should not be taken to imply that photographing residences without fences is okay, just that the case is clearer when there is a fence or other enclosure.

Finally, in a postscript to an entry about criticism leveled at him [28], Takagi posted the following remark about his motivations in blogging about Street View [29], arguing that what he is doing is really the job of journalists:


What I've written about in this diary are not things that I have discovered myself. Many have already pointed out these things in places like 2channel. I just brought these issues in the shadows out into the open, that's all. The trouble with this kind of problem is that in this situation, people who are suffering face drawbacks if they speak out, so they express their dissatisfaction only on anonymous bulletin boards. In essence, journalism should handle this situation by adequately bringing these issues to the surface and letting the world know about them, but there is no journalism in Japan. Since this was not going to change, I prepared myself and grudgingly visited houses in the Mejiro area and brought out the truth of the situation. Same thing in the case of the private roads issue. This is essentially the job of journalists. This is not my job.


What is needed right now is criticism against Google Japan for its botched localization, and negotiations about how to improve it. This is not a time to be arguing about generalities such as [questions of] what is privacy.

Update (10/8/2008):

Earlier entries about Street View in Japan:

Thanks to Gen Kanai [33] for the suggestion that led to this entry.