google carIn the most recent installment of the battle between Switzerland’s Federal Data Protection Commissioner and Google Inc., the top administrative court in Switzerland ruled against Google’s “Street View” map service on Monday, backing the Swiss privacy watchdog. The decision was grounded in existing laws that require permission to use visible faces on the internet.

Based on photographs taken from specially equipped vehicles, Google’s Street View service gives users access to panoramic views of some Google Maps locations. The mapping service became available in Switzerland in 2009 and litigation has been ongoing since that date. After the Data Protection Commissioner complained, Google agreed in 2009 to put a temporary hold on new pictures of Swiss cities. The struggle between the Swiss government and the widely used internet company has been closely watched by other regulators who are currently trying to balance individual rights and the popularity of the web application.

This is not the first privacy issue Google has encountered in offering the service to European citizens. In response to regulators’ concerns in Germany, Google offered to blur out houses or apartments from Street View upon requests, allowing residents to opt out of its mapping service before the product was available there. Currently, over 200,000 households in Germany have reportedly taken up Google’s offer.  But Google has rejected the Swiss demands that faces be manually blurred out- a provision that the corporation claims is both financially and logically unfeasible. While admitting that the service is not perfect, lawyers for the company told the court that technology already in place automatically blurred faces and car plates.

The Swiss court held Monday that this technology was insufficient, and Google must ensure that images of both individuals and vehicle plates are unrecognizable on the Street View map so as to comply with the nation’s privacy laws. This ruling applies in all cases, “regardless of the actual sensitivity of the information in question.” The court reasoned that “the interest of the public in having a visual record and the commercial interests of the defendant in no way outweigh the rights over one’s own image, as the pictures can be made more or totally unrecognizable, and this is a proportionate measure.” The court stated that the case evidences the current struggle between commercial rights and the right “to have the private domain respected and the rights of the individual in question over their own image.” While not forbidding Street View, the court suggested that Google must reconsider the costs of keeping the product available, which may ultimately have to be passed down to Swiss-users of the technology.

Google’s lawyer expressed disappointment with the decision, explaining that the service has been useful to both business and tourist organizations, with “more than one in four of the Swiss population” using it since its launch in the country. The lawyer went on to add that the company is in the process of investigating what the ruling will mean for Street View in Switzerland and what possibilities Google may have for an appeal. The outcome of this case will undoubtedly affect how Google and other internet companies conduct business abroad. The decision represents the willingness of courts to restrict such services, and privacy regulators will feel emboldened by the outcome.

- Virginia Maynard

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