Switzerland’s highest court Friday upheld Google’s basic right to document residential street fronts with its Street View technology, but imposed some limitations on the kinds of images the company can take.
The ruling leaves the service legally intact in Switzerland, which has some of the strictest privacy safeguards in the world. Swiss regulators and Google both said they were pleased with the decision.
Google also faces an antitrust investigation in Europe on charges of dominating in the Internet search market. On Friday, the competition commissioner who is leading the inquiry gave Google an early July deadline to come up with “concrete signs” of its willingness to offer “remedy proposals.”
The commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, said in a speech that if the proposals “turn out to be unsatisfactory, formal proceedings will continue through the adoption of a statement of objections.”
Google said it was working with the commission.
Street View began as an ambitious project to photograph the world’s streets. But it turned into a worldwide controversy when it turned out that as the specially equipped cars passed by households, they were also collecting unencrypted Internet data from wireless networks – snippets of emails, photographs, passwords, postings on websites and other private information.
Google has maintained that the collection of private information was accidental – and that the data was not intended for or used in any Google product – but a recent Federal Communications Commission report failed to completely endorse that perspective. In April, the FCC fined Google $25,000, saying it had obstructed an investigation into Street View.
The Swiss ruling did not involve the collection of private Internet data but focused on the conditions for Street View cars to photograph the country’s streets.
Google introduced Street View in 2009 in Switzerland, where privacy is so closely guarded that many residents do not list their names on their front doors or mailboxes.
In 2010, the national regulator had thrown the future of Street View into question by demanding that Google’s pixilation technology, which blurred certain images, function without error, 100 percent of the time. If the high court had sided with the regulator, Google could have been forced to withdraw Street View from Switzerland because it could not meet demands for absolute accuracy.
In its ruling Friday, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, the Bundesgericht, said Google did not have to guarantee 100 percent blurring of the faces of pedestrians, auto license plates and other identifying markers captured by Google’s Street View cars; 99 percent would be acceptable. The company, based in Mountain View, Calif., says its technology blurs faces and license plates in 99 percent of cases.
While the Swiss court sided with Google on the adequacy of its digital pixilation methods, the panel upheld several conditions demanded by the national regulator. Those conditions would require Google to lower the height of its Street View cameras so they would not peer over garden walls and hedges, to completely blur out sensitive facilities like women’s shelters, prisons, retirement homes and schools, and to advise communities in advance of scheduled tapings.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, who has criticized the project, hailed the ruling as an important restraint on Google’s abilities to film in public.
“The ruling of the Swiss court in the Street View matter puts still more pressure on Google to pull back from the controversial service,” Rotenberg said.
But Daniel Fischer, a privacy lawyer at the firm AFP Advokatur Fischer & Partner in Zurich, called the verdict “a typical Swiss legal compromise.” He added, “Both sides got to keep face.”
Peter Fleischer, Google’s global privacy counsel, said in a statement that the company would review the recommendations for adjusting its Street View procedures in Switzerland.
“We’re pleased the Swiss court has upheld a key part of our appeal, acknowledging that we have strong privacy controls in Street View,” Fleischer said.
Hanspeter Thuer, the Swiss federal data protection and information commissioner, who filed the complaint against Google, said in a statement that he was very happy with the ruling.
“It supports the core of our legal argument,” the statement said.
The Swiss case was the last one pending in Europe challenging the basic legality of Street View’s photographing methods, which had first raised privacy concerns five years ago. With the exception of Greece, European regulators and courts have allowed Google to roll out Street View in 25 countries in Europe, though often with restrictions.
German prosecutors in Hamburg and the Hamburg data protection supervisor are continuing to investigate the collection of Internet data, but have been hindered in part by the refusal of the Google engineer responsible for the project, Marius Milner, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., to speak publicly about the project.
Since the FCC fined Google, there has been agitation in Britain and, more mutedly, in the United States for a more thorough investigation. A coalition of attorneys general looking into the matter is continuing but has had little momentum for at least a year.
The Swiss court also said Google must provide better information about Street View by, for example, allowing people to opt out of the photo archive through traditional mail services as well as online.
“A lot of people in Switzerland don’t have Internet access and they were frustrated by Google’s refusal to provide a clear postal address for their complaints,” said Eliane Schmid, a spokeswoman for the Swiss data privacy regulator.
Google employs several hundred workers at a regional office in Zurich, one of the largest it has outside the United States.