Defending public as a journalistic doctrine

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.

  • Walter Abbott

    Jeff,

    I started a blog a little over a week ago with the intent of covering local news – city council, school board, etc. I am working on a story which. if my hunch pans out, will be significant for our region of the state. It would have been impossible to do without Street View.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org Martin Langeveld

    Dutch journalists should be cool with Streetview after this incident in which (alleged) muggers were caught because of evidence captured on Streetview: http://www.nrc.nl/international/article2277122.ece/Google_Streetview_helps_catch_Dutch_muggers

  • http://adrianmonck.com Adrian Monck

    I applaud the public intent – but Jeff, we also live in a world where much is unpublic (CEO health issues?).

    The public on the receiving end of Google’s beneficence may well reject a useful gift because they perceive the gift as beimg ‘imposed.’

    This is where Google meets politics, and journalism feels more comfortable articulating local opposition than defending a global corporation – even when the ‘greater good’ may or may not be served by the latter’s endeavours.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      You’re making it into an emotional debate of good guys and bad guys. I say this is a principle: What’s public is public. If we journalists allow cracks in that, we hurt our ability to report news.

      • http://adrianmonck.com Adrian Monck

        My point is: what’s public is political. And as journalists we need to understand that politics is about power relationships.

      • Andy Freeman

        > My point is: what’s public is political. And as journalists we need to understand that politics is about power relationships.

        Quite right.

        And any day now we’re going to hear about Senator Dodd’s wife’s “day jobs”. And we’re going to hear about the power couples where one is a journalist and the other is….

  • Rob Levine

    I’ll welcome Google’s street view when it makes public its search algorithm.

    Fact is, Google is not all that transparent about the most important parts of its business.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Rob, it can’t make the search algorithm public or it will be gamed and become useless. You know that.

      • Rob Levine

        >>>it can’t make the search algorithm public or it will be gamed and become useless

        I’ll show them mind if they show me theirs . . .

        Hell, I’d settle for them laying out their privacy policy in more clear detail!

        Can we at least stop saying that this company is transparent?

        • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

          If you’d read my book and my blog, you’d know that I have often said that Google is not transparent as it should be. Can we make it a goal to have an unpredictable comment?

  • http://blogdessennamenmansichnichtmerkenkann.wordpress.com ugugu

    i would argue, also public space needs some sort of privacy. would it be wise to publish all videos from iran? i doubt it. i have not seen all videos available, but somehow people in iran seem to understand, that publishing videos can also be a risky thing, especially if faces can be identified.

  • Lyle

    Rob,

    You can be sure that search algorithm has a funky little variable for buying off politicians, transparency groups and the rest.

  • http://stevenfettig.com/mythoughts/ Steven N. Fettig

    Jeff, I agree with almost all of the sentiments of your post other than the totality of the statement “No, public is public.” The very definition of what is and has been public is being radically expanded by technology like Google’s Street View. While I knew that walking down a Manhattan street that I could – at any point in time – be captured by the cameras of fellow citizens, the police/law enforcement, or ATMs, etc., I did not necessarily expect (or understand) that the same could happen with a Google Street View camera and have that picture sent into the living rooms of billions of people.
    When I was thinking about this, I asked myself, what is the difference? The difference is that public is no longer local, but world-wide. Being a relatively open person (I have a blog, twitter account, facebook account, etc, etc), I still cringe at the idea that my image could be captured and disseminated so *easily.* I can’t say that I have thought this through enough, however, to say whether or not it is right (at first glance, I would have to fall back on your sentiment that public is public) – but we can’t simply maintain that it is the same as our past understanding of what public is. The change is quick and brutal – but not necessarily wrong or bad. But, the argument must be made to remind people of public vs. private so that they don’t assume things to be so or so and ruin it for the rest of us.
    The transparency issue you raise is unquestionably one of importance. I would argue that in order for the government to be able to block images in the interest of national security, that it will have to make a request for every, single, stinking image they want to be blocked. No broad brushes here. Transparency is certainly not what Iran’s ruling party is about and I imagine we can all agree that that is not good.

  • John

    If Street View and like pubic images, whether posted to Flicker or any other searchable repository, are deemed public domain so that public officials are prosecuted after being ‘caught with their hands in the cookie jars’, then they will become much more secretive. Perhaps a duh, but how this resolves legally and culturally will be interesting and significant.

  • Rob Levine

    >>>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.

    I had always heard that this was a Calvinist thing – people showing they had nothing to hide – that was enforced by religious norms. What a pity if fear of God gave way to fear of GOOG . . .

  • Rob Levine

    >>>Can we make it a goal to have an unpredictable comment?

    Sure – you first!

  • Mike Manitoba

    Here’s an unpredictable comment:

    Mayonnaise soldiers filet disco phenomena.

  • http://www.kuryekargo.com kargo

    Defending public as a journalistic doctrine « BuzzMachine great article thank you.