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Public Appeal 

A Pittsburgh couple that sued Google -- and lost -- for violating their privacy is taking their case to the public.

Christine and Aaron Boring made pun-filled headlines last spring when they sued Google after their house and pool appeared on Street View, Google's photographic mapping software. The Borings sought damages for their "mental suffering" and for loss of privacy. Although removing one's home from Street View is a relatively simple affair -- a YouTube video prominently featured on the site provides instructions to do so -- they argued that Google should have sought their permission before taking the photos in the first place.

The case was dismissed Feb. 17, but the couple is seeking a new trial with a new attorney -- one who, oddly enough in a privacy case, has been sending out press releases about the matter. The Zegarelli Law Group has, in fact, made the case hard to ignore: Gregg Zegarelli says Google is turning his clients into "slaves," and uses eyebrow-raising language to ask U.S. Magistrate Judge Amy Reynolds Hay to reconsider her ruling dismissing the case. "Whether the trespass is by a foreign king, or the royalty of big business, does not matter," the court filing argues. "The Borings ... are entitled to proclaim, 'Google, Don't Tread On Me.'"

Hay, in dismissing the Borings' claims, wrote: "While it is easy to imagine that many whose property appears on Google's virtual maps resent the privacy implications, it is hard to believe that any -- other than the most exquisitely sensitive -- would suffer shame or humiliation. The Plaintiffs have not alleged facts to convince the Court otherwise." Hay noted that instead of quietly requesting Google to remove photos of their property, the Borings chose a highly public lawsuit to pursue their claim -- and that they hadn't sought to have the court record sealed. Such "failure to take readily available steps to protect their own privacy," Hay wrote, suggested "that the intrusion and their suffering were less severe than they contend."

Some have hailed the ruling. "I think the trial judge here did an unusually thoughtful job of walking through all the permutations of the case," says Mike Madison, a University of Pittsburgh law professor with an interest in privacy law.

"They had a cheap and easy mechanism [to remove the images]. Did they do that? No. They sought out the spotlight. The judge's reacting the way a lot of ordinary people reacted -- if you really care that much about your privacy, exercise the private remedy that keeps you out of the limelight."

But some privacy advocates are unconvinced by that reasoning. "To say 'this court action is happening' -- drawing attention to something that is public record -- is not the same as inviting the media," says Lillie Coney, associate director with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C., privacy think tank. "The judge was wrong in making that analysis."

This time around, the Borings are focusing less on privacy concerns than on the question of whether Google should be punished for trespassing. "Trespass, we think, is rather clear -- you're either on someone's property, or you're not," says Zegarelli. "The Google photographer drove onto crunching gravel, past the 'Do Not Trespass' sign. We tried to focus on the trespass because it's more discrete."

Zegarelli says the Borings were essentially "enslaved" by Google because the company has photographed their property to help turn a profit from Street View.

"You have to understand what the definition of slavery is -- you're compelled to work for another's profit against your will," he says. "If Google's allowed to trespass without any accountability, then land which was heretofore private is now subject to their use."

Zegarelli says his clients are seeking a jury trial, and will continue to fight. While the motion does seek more than $25,000 in compensation, Zegarelli says it's not about the cash.

"If the jury comes back and says we'll give you one dollar, so be it," he says. "I can look a court in the eye and say, 'Google has no right to be on my property at any time.'"

Both Zegarelli and Coney say that Google's opt-out system misses the point. In such a system, "It's up to you to pursue justice," says Coney. "They take your privacy and then you have to do something about it? That's not how the criminal-justice process is supposed to work," says Coney. "Victims of violations of the law shouldn't have to seek their own recourse."

"In the classic sense, sure, you can't excuse an invasion of privacy by saying the victim can opt out," says Madison. "On the other hand, it's not clear to me that the standard rules apply to a system like what Google's got in place. ... The benefit of the Google Street View project is pretty dramatic and the burden on the individual homeowner is pretty trivial. It would be different if Google made it harder to object."

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

The Boring's home on Google Street View
  • The Boring's home on Google Street View


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