Is Google Street View journalism?

When Google sent their camera-equipped Street View car to cruise Canadian cities in early 2009, the drive down city streets became awfully controversial.

As the car-mounted camera snapped pictures of the streets, capturing not only the landscape but the people who were around at the time, there was much debate about privacy rights in the media, among the public and within the government.

Concern was that these photos ran afoul of the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA.)

PIPEDA governs the collection and use and distribution of personal data by private sector corporations.

It is this context that University of Ottawa Information Law Research Chair Teresa Scassa asked the question: “Is Google Street View journalism?”

Speaking on a panel at the uOttawa Centre for Law, Technology and Society launch, Scassa acknowledge that it may seem like a silly question at first.

However, when considering that PIPEDA contains an exception for “journalistic purposes,” the question becomes more interesting.

Were Google Street View to be declared journalism, any privacy issues, at least as far as the law is concerned, go away.

In December 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada established a new defamation defence protecting individuals from defemation lawsuits if they pass a “reasonable journalism” test.

That said, the court extended the coverage of this defense beyond traditional media to new media practitioners like bloggers.

As Google Street View can be embedded in these new media sites, it could fall into the definition laid out by the Supereme Court.

The question becomes more interesting when you consider the province of Quebec.

Quebec’s privacy laws do not have an exception for “journalistic purposes.” Instead, the exception is for “legitimately informing the public.”

Under those rules, it’s difficult to argue that Google Street View doesn’t qualify.

In fact, several attendees of the Centre for Law, Technology and Society used Google Street View to find the venue.