In a few countries around the world, we’ve seen a backlash against Google’s Streetview as somehow an invasion of privacy, even though what Google captures is the very definition of public: what can be seen in the open.
I wish that journalists would defend Google and its definition of public, for it matters to journalism.
See Peter Cashmore’s report on Streetview’s capturing of a crack in a building that collapsed today in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. Google captured what it thought was merely data but data turns out to be news.
When I was in Amsterdam for the Next09 conference, the Streetview controversy was in full bloom because Google’s oggling cars had just toured its streets (and canals?). Now I’d been told by German friends that Holland is different from the more closed societies in Europe, as folks leave their front windows and doors open, ashamed of and hiding nothing. Nonetheless the Dutch were hinky about Streetview, even journalists I met.
I argued with those Dutch journalists that if a city official were caught red-handed in the red-light district by a journalist’s camera – or a witness’ – there’s no difference if Google’s camera captures it. It’s public. It’s news. But if that politician is given the ability to quash Google’s photo, then it’s a short step to setting a precedent so a journalist’s photo could be quashed, on the basis that the private can occur in public.
No, public is public. We need that to be the case, for journalism and for society. We must protect the idea of public.
What is happening in Iran this week is public, no matter how much the despots try to make it private. See, too, this Guardian report in which a witness captured images of police allegedly roughing up and arresting citizens for demanding officers’ badge numbers and photographing them – for enforcing the doctrine of publicness with public officials.
Indeed, I’d say this doctrine should stretch to saying that everything a public official does is public – everything except matters of security. Thus Britain’s MPs would not be allowed to black out their spending of taxpayers’ money. Thus the default in American government would be transparency, making any official’s actions and information open and searchable. Thus anyone in Ft. Greene could scour Streetview to look for unsafe buildings.
What happens in public is the public’s – it’s ours.