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Smile, You're on Googcam

February 07, 2007

By Peter W. Huber

PRINTER FRIENDLY

Banks started monitoring sidewalk action around their ATMs years ago; Google is now aiming to cover what Citibank missed. By mounting 360-degree, multilens cameras on roving cars, Google will bring ATM-caliber security to your driveway--whether you like it or not. You can't stop Google, and Washington can't either, at least not without amending the First Amendment. And that won't happen, because too many people like it just fine the way it is. From here on out, nobody and nothing is private when it's out in public.

Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people )'s cameras are in fact almost beside the point. A Webcam on your neighbor's windowsill can put your back yard on the Web, around the clock. Google's YouTube can do driveways, too, and plenty of ordinary folk enjoy keeping an eye on their neighbors. Many neighbors are grateful that they do.

So are the police. They routinely seek and get access to Citibank's digital archives for their first view of purse snatchers, rapists and terrorists. And you can bet the National Security Agency is spending billions on technology to comb through the torrents of private video that are already coursing across the public Web.

If you're thinking that they just can't do that, that you've got a constitutional right to privacy, you're dead wrong. The search-and-seizure clauses of the Fourth Amendment protect you from the police, not from your neighbor. The First Amendment, by contrast, gives your neighbor a near absolute right to use digital gadgets to engage in digital speech--ask any pornographer. And nothing in the Constitution bars the FBI from logging on to the Web to enjoy YouTube and pizza along with the rest of us. The feds can't actively enlist us in certain kinds of snooping. But they sure can sit back and enjoy Google's show.

Many people have the naive idea that the First Amendment doesn't protect Google. But it certainly does. And, in any event, the tiny trickles of video from Google's own cameras are already dwarfed by private feeds from billions of little-guy cameras. The Supreme Court isn't going to trim the First Amendment just because your neighbor can now compete with NBC.

You do have some power to stop others from making a buck out of your name and face. Paris Hilton can stop people from plastering her face on coffee mugs without her say-so--when it comes to porcelain imprints for commercial purposes, she does indeed own her own mug. But she can't stop the paparazzi from zooming in as she stretches her way into the backseat of a limo, because that isn't tableware, it's news.

The First Amendment protects everyone's right to ogle in public spaces, turn the ogling into "speech" and publish it via "the press," which includes radios and wires. Muckrakers, tabloids and wire services have been doing this since the days of Gutenberg and Marconi. Now your neighbor and Google have at their disposal a "press" that is a billion times faster and more capacious than anything imagined when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.

So the police state of the future will be created and defined democratically, community by community. In their gated enclaves the wealthy will use deeds, contracts and covenants to police snoopy neighbors as strictly as they police lawn ornaments and gaudy paint schemes. The managers of urban co-ops, condos and rental apartments will do much the same inside their buildings, and residents will have to rely on hats, wigs and sunglasses to get in and out unobserved.

The hardest place to hide will be in the suburbs. But Google probably won't bother sending its cruisers there very often, and Aunt Nosyanne will be dealt with the old-fashioned way, by being told, politely, that we just don't do this sort of thing here. Or maybe the neighbors will send her pies and petunias instead, and thank her for being such a great crime-stopper in Oshkosh.

The people who are really going to hate this post-Orwellian world are those who think that they alone have the special expertise needed to decide where free speech ends and privacy begins. That boundary will no longer be prescribed from the top down, through Olympian pronouncements from the Supreme Court. Put in place to defend individual freedom, our brilliant Constitution made us free enough to develop and democratize free-speech technologies so cheap and powerful they can now be controlled only by property rights and local culture.

The ACLU may fume, but the authors of the Bill of Rights can rest in peace.

Original Source: http://members.forbes.com/free_forbes/2007/0702/110.html

 

 
 
 

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