Google pays out 'dollar of vindication' for trespassing

By Juan Carlos Perez

After a legal battle that lasted two-and-a-half years, Google has been found guilty of trespassing on a Pennsylvania family’s property to take photos of their property for its Maps website.

However, the penalty is nominal: Google will have to pay only $1 to Aaron and Christine Boring, who sued Google in 2008, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Related Story: Google tries to dodge brand damage with new privacy measure

Earlier this week, Judge Cathy Bissoon, from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, wrapped up the case with a consent judgment, which means both parties agreed to the final resolution terms.

Back in 2008, the Borings charged Google with invading their privacy, acting negligently, being unjustly enriched and trespassing after a Google Street View car entered and photographed their Pittsburgh property — which includes a private road leading to their house — and the photo was published in the Maps site.

“This is one sweet dollar of vindication,” the Borings said in a statement.

The lawsuit was dismissed in February 2009, but the Borings appealed to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the dismissal and sent the case back to the lower court.

A Google spokesman said via e-mail that the company welcomes the case’s resolution. “We are pleased that this lawsuit has finally ended with plaintiffs’ acknowledgement that they are entitled to only $1,” he said.

While not technically so, a consent judgment is very much like a settlement because the litigating parties reach a mutually agreeable resolution and present it to the judge for approval and signing, said Eric Goldman, associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and director of its High Tech Law Institute.

“I interpret this as a settlement,” he said in a phone interview.

While Google admits guilt in the trespassing charge, the public doesn’t get the judge’s opinion on the merits of the allegation, said Goldman.

With Google’s penalty a nominal dollar, the plaintiffs’ legal victory is very minor, he said.

At best, the plaintiffs proved that Google made a trespassing mistake, but evidently they were unable to prove that Google’s action negatively affected them in any significant way, according to Goldman.

“They could never make a good demonstration of harm,” he said.

In that sense, this case is similar to many other lawsuits in which plaintiffs allege privacy or trespassing breaches, but can’t show the court how they were hurt.

“The courts are saying: ‘Show me how the privacy violation hurt you, and if you can’t, I don’t have anything for you,'” he said.

In fact, the case may have cost the Borings a lot of money in legal fees, unless their law firm waived the fees, in which case the firm lost out on getting paid for its work. The Google spokesman said that Google provided no remuneration nor fee reimbursement of any kind to the plaintiffs.

Gregg Zegarelli, the Borings’ attorney, didn’t immediately clarify whether the Borings paid his legal fees or whether he waived them.

However, he said he and the plaintiffs cared little about the money aspect of the litigation. Their goal all along was to get Google to admit that it trespassed.

“We did not require or want their money, we required and wanted them to admit they are trespassers,” Zegarelli said via e-mail. “Plaintiffs got exactly the vindication they wanted.

If Google does this again, it will be considered “an adjudicated habitual trespasser,” which will provide a legal foundation for other aggrieved parties, he said via e-mail. “The extensive record of the case is there for others to use or to consider, for free.”

The case history and its documents will help individuals, groups and government agencies taking legal or regulatory action regarding technology-related privacy violations and trespassing, according to Zegarelli.

His law firm has set up a website about the case called Google Trespass. “The goal is to help others defend themselves and leverage their time and costs,” he said in the statement.

Google’s Street View cars ignited a privacy firestorm when the company announced in May that, in addition to snapping photos, the vehicles had also captured and saved Web traffic data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks since 2007 as they drove around.

The Street View cars were supposed to only record Wi-Fi network names (SSIDs) and their routers’ unique identifying numbers (MAC addresses), but a software glitch caused them to also grab and store data like the addresses of websites being visited, passwords and entire e-mail messages.

As a result, incensed individuals have filed civil lawsuits against Google, while regulatory agencies and elected officials in the U.S. and abroad have launched investigations.

Google has apologized repeatedly about the situation and has announced steps to tighten its privacy policies, employee awareness, procedures and protections.

In retrospect, the Borings’ case may have been an early warning for Google about the potential risks and problems that its Street View program carries, Goldman said. “Street View is a second-tier service for Google and yet one of its biggest trouble spots,” he said.

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