This is the 29th meeting of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Our order today, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), is a study of the privacy implications of camera surveillance.
Our witnesses today are from Google Inc. and from Canpages. From Google Inc., we have with us Mr. Jonathan Lister, managing director and head of Google Canada. From Canpages Inc., we have with us Mr. Olivier Vincent, president and chief executive officer.
Good afternoon, gentlemen. We welcome you to the committee's consideration.
The committee passed a motion to the effect that the committee study the privacy implications of camera surveillance, such as Google Street View and Canpages, and other issues related to video surveillance and that the committee ask Google and its representative and Canpages and its representative to testify before the committee on this subject.
We thank you for appearing. We understand you both have some brief opening remarks or demos for the committee. We'd like to proceed. Who is going to go first?
Mr. Lister, please proceed.
Thanks for having me, and thanks for having Google here.
Members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, my name is Jonathan Lister, and I am the managing director and head of Google Canada. It is my pleasure to be here today to provide you with more information about Street View, the innovative way to view street-level geographic imagery in Google Maps.
I believe I can say without hubris that most of you will be familiar with Google. Google is best known for its highly popular search engine. Millions of Canadians use Google every day to search the Internet.
Innovation, vision, and commitment to our corporate mission--taking the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful--power the Google search engine. These are the same attributes that have led to the development of Street View, which we are here to discuss today.
Google is committed to innovation in Canada and around the world. On a global basis, Google invests billions of dollars in research and development. In 2008 we spent over $2.5 billion on R and D. We are committed to growing our capacity for innovation by creating highly skilled, knowledge-based jobs right here in Canada. We've established offices in Toronto, Waterloo, Ottawa, and Montreal. Google has world-leading engineers working in Canada helping to create the next breakthrough technologies, not just for Canada but with global impact.
I'm pleased to tell you that the Great Place to Work Institute named Google Canada the best place to work in Canada, beating out other well-known corporate icons. We also just won the 2009 annual Marketing/Leger corporate reputation survey, which we are deeply proud of.
Google is actively engaged in the Canadian business community and within the broader society as a whole. We've partnered with a company in Halifax called Eco-Nova to help create the technology for Google Earth's ocean feature in order to look at shipwrecks. We have worked with the David Suzuki Foundation to develop ways Google can be used to improve education on environmental issues. Our Canadian staff participate in regular community service projects such as whole-day staff retreats to work on a farm to help provide food for those less fortunate.
We are proud of the work we do in Canada, and we take our corporate responsibilities very seriously.
Street View's success and popularity should not come as a surprise. Many of us find it difficult to read maps and follow directions. Many of us understand geographical information visually. With Street View, which is a feature in Google Maps, users get the best of both worlds: they get a traditional map, plus they get street-level pictures to help them identify key landmarks. It's this innovation that makes the product really useful and popular.
The U.K. launch of Street View on March 19, 2009, was so successful that visits, according to Hitwise, to Google Maps U.K. increased by 41%. I'm confident Street View will have an equally positive response from Canadians. In fact, we know that Canadians are eager for this product. In the last six months alone, Canadians have viewed over 100 million panoramas of other countries. Once images of their own country are available, we are sure their enthusiasm for this product will only grow.
I agree with Mr. Poilievre's assessment in his National Post op-ed piece when he wrote:
|...the presence of Google's Street View in Canadian cities is great news. It will showcase our urban life and attract tourists. It will allow parents to preview potential living conditions, as their kids leave the nest and go off to university. It will bring us in line with American, European and Asian cities that have hosted this service.
We are confident that individual Canadians and businesses, especially the tourism and real estate sectors, will see the benefits of this highly popular product. Individuals will also be able to use Street View to explore their city.
In early 2008 we linked Street View images with driving directions, giving users the ability to virtually see and familiarize themselves with their route before setting off. They can print out their driving directions with photos. For example, in Calgary, Macleod Trail is a major traffic artery at the heart of the city, albeit with too few stoplights and turnoffs. With Street View, people who aren't familiar with the highway can map out their exit and help avoid the fender benders that are all too common.
Street View also has enormous tourism and place-based marketing potential. For example, in 2008 we partnered with the organizers of the Tour de France to provide fans with a rider's eye view of the course. We could do the same with tourist events in Canada, such as marathons in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Imagine showcasing Vancouver 2010 to people around the world.
In these difficult and challenging economic times, Canadian tourism and hospitality industries are struggling to cope with changing travel and tourism behaviours. An innovative service like Street View has the potential to change the way these industries market themselves and attract new visitors.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the possible economic benefits to come from a product like Street View. Another use, which we can discuss further if there's interest, is in the hard-hit real estate sector.
Clearly, Street View is a product that is changing the way people think about maps. In many facets of our daily lives the Internet is changing how we perform tasks, from banking, to planning vacations, to researching programs for our children. While changes can create initial unease, we believe they will over the long term benefit millions. The changes in digital cartography are no different. Millions will benefit from the addition of street-level photography to the maps found on the Internet.
Mapping helps us better understand and navigate the world around us. Mapping data is an integral part of the world's information that Google is innovating around to make universally accessible and useful. Furthermore, since the earliest days of photography, cartographers have taken and published street-level imagery to help map our urban landscapes. The great innovation of Google Street View is the ability to marry street-level images with digital maps in order to provide a superior product for Internet users.
I recognize this committee has questions about the privacy implications of this product. Let me assure you that the Google innovation that has driven the development of this product is the same innovation we put into building Street View's world-leading privacy protections.
First and foremost, Google is respectful of the laws of each country in which Street View operates. The imagery we make available shows no more than what any of you would see while travelling down a public street. The images in Street View are a snapshot in time, often several months to a year old. They aren't real time. While we only collect images from public places, we've always recognized that some passers-by may be inadvertently included in our pictures. As such, Google has invested significant resources into the development of a world-leading process for identifying and blurring certain features in an image, namely, identifiable faces and licence plates. We've invested a huge amount of engineering talent into the development of this automated identification and blurring technology, which is applied before images are published. Make no mistake about it, facial and licence plate identification and blurring—especially at the scale Google operates—is a significant feat of engineering innovation.
Another key component to the privacy protections built into Street View is the easy-to-use, take-down request system. Every published Street View image includes a “report a problem” link, which takes users to a simple removals page. Any individual can ask to have an image entirely removed from the publication if it features themselves, their family, their car, or their home. This removal applies even if aspects of the image have already been blurred. We process removal requests every day in multiple languages and offer a fast and efficient turnaround time for each request.
Another important aspect of our efforts to ensure privacy protection is our commitment to work with key stakeholders in every country in order to identify and contact relevant local organizations prior to launch. Our team will work to reach out to Canadian stakeholders and provide them with all the relevant details of Street View, including how to have their organization's image removed or blurred from the site.
We're also putting in place a system that will ensure that on launch day for Street View in Canada, we will have additional staff on hand to handle take-down requests.
Let me close by saying that as with many cutting-edge technologies, the challenge we face with Street View is striking the right balance between building a sophisticated and highly useful tool and ensuring that the data we collect to provide these services is used appropriately.
The many people across the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere who already use Street View to explore their communities, tourist attractions, or cities on the other side of the world tell us that we've created a great, useful product, one that builds privacy protections into the very design of the product.
With the addition of Canadian cities in the near future, we look forward to expanding these benefits to many more Google Maps users in the months to come.
Street View is a highly innovative advancement in digital cartography. It has won over fans in every country where it has been launched. We have incorporated world-leading privacy protections into Street View, and we continue to work with all relevant stakeholders to improve these protections.
Innovation drives everything we do at Google, both around the world and here in Canada. We are very excited to be able to one day soon share Street View, the latest wellspring of Google innovation, with all Canadians.
My name is Olivier Vincent and I'm the president and CEO of Canpages Inc.
Canpages is a local search and directory publisher that operates mostly in Canada. We provide a multimedia platform that focuses on relevant local results. We offer these platforms to users in print, online, and mobile platforms. We have in excess of 3.5 million unique visitors in Canada, who come to our website every month with their own local search requests.
In 2008 we were very proud to be recognized as the fastest-growing online company in Canada. Rich and relevant local content, such as photos, videos, and other immersive media, sets Canpages.ca apart from other directories and local search firms. Our robust online directory combines comprehensive data and a unique user experience with maps and satellite images provided by several partners, including Google.
With more than 80 print publications across Ontario, B.C., Quebec, Alberta, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, and 80,000 customers a year, we reach more than eight million households and businesses across Canada. We have tripled our employee base from 200 to more than 650 employees in the last two years.
We also offer advanced mobile search technologies and multiple search possibilities, with free text messages to mobile phones, mobile maps, direct SMS search and advanced WAP, and BlackBerry and iPhone mobile application experiences.
In March 2009, as part of our ongoing commitment to innovation and to delivering the best search experience possible to customers, Canpages launched Street Scene, its own version of panoramic street photos, initially focusing on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic cities of Vancouver, Squamish, and Whistler.
Fully integrated with Canpages' local search functionality, Street Scene provides panoramic street-level views of the city, so users can not only pinpoint their search results on a map, but also see high-resolution visuals of their search results in the context of the local environment. For example, users can take a virtual walk down the city streets to a local restaurant or hotel. They can see how it looks from the outside before they make a reservation, or they can assess whether there is street parking or some other parking lot nearby.
We are focusing on commercial areas. You will not see a focus on residential areas with Canpages.
The Street Scene service has been very well received by consumers and tourists alike. We have received millions of visits since the launch of Street Scene in March of this year, and we have not received a single complaint to date. As a matter of fact, we have received overwhelming feedback from visitors, advertisers, and businesses alike.
We will notify the public before we start shooting. Individual faces and other recognizable features like licence plates are blurred on the captured image prior to being posted online. The blurring process uses a proprietary technology that is irreversible by the users. All original non-blurred files are destroyed after blurring and before being posted online. There is no way to get back these original files later on.
Users can report any concern at any time using the “report a concern” feedback located on every image. Upon a specific request, Canpages will provide extra blurring for an entire person, a vehicle, a window, a building, a pet--you name it. While privacy laws are not necessarily reflective of the rapidly growing field of technology, we at Canpages want to take a proactive approach to all concerns that may be raised.
Street Scene is an extremely innovative product and a testament to great progress for online local searches. We believe it will benefit consumers and businesses and encourage tourism in Canada.
Canpages has engaged with the public, the privacy commissioners of Canada, and Mr. Pierre Poilievre, the MP who filed a motion before this committee to review privacy matters.
In conclusion, Canpages is committed to working both immediately and as part of an ongoing process to address potential privacy issues that might arise as a result of its continuous innovation in the field of local search.
Also, if you don't mind, I'd like to give you a two-minute run-through of the system so you can actually see it working live, with Canadian data. If you can direct yourself to the screen, you will see that I've made a search for restaurants in Vancouver. While I'm finding a lot of results, I've pre-selected some of the ones that I'm interested in and that will appear.
The first one is an Indian restaurant. I'm going to click on Street Scene and I'm going to see it. Canpages takes me directly to a visual of that restaurant. I can even move around and have a look at the surroundings. I can go to full screen to have a better view of it. As you can see, I can even walk around, and all these little dots on the ground represent the location of a panoramic view. At every position, you can have a detailed look at the surroundings.
Next I'm looking at an interesting furniture store in Vancouver. You can see that people's faces are blurred. There's no way to recognize them.
This way, I can tour all around the Vancouver, Whistler, and Squamish area. Not only that, but we can also open the doors of these restaurants and all these businesses. Now I'm opening a virtual door into a business and I'm walking in. I'm now able to have a look at and visit that restaurant. We're doing this for every business out there, such as beauty salons, retail stores, etc., to give you a chance to have a total immersive experience, with that whole chain and experience of Street Scene as a particularly important component of it.
We'll now go to Whistler. These images were taken right before winter so there is no snow on the mountain, but I'm even in the walking area of Whistler here. I can go up and down the whole city of Whistler. We have the Sea to Sky Highway available, as well as all the nice and appealing areas of Canada.
These beautiful areas are on Street Scene. I hope that gives you an idea of how this can work and how powerful that is in the context of a local search.
Thank you very much.
Perhaps I could give part of the answer.
I'm going to switch to English, if you don't mind, so I don't mix up my vocabulary.
When you innovate, you always enter new territories, which creates questions and sometimes fears. After years of Google's Street View around the planet, I am not aware of a single incident where something really bad happened to somebody, or even slightly bad. There have been a few urban myths, but nothing has really come out.
When I hear journalists say it's like giving an instrument to criminals, I think that's equivalent to saying that cars allow bank robbers to run away from the scene of a crime and therefore we should forfeit cars. To me that's too overreaching.
I see so many thousands of opportunities to use these maps and street views to enhance everybody's life, to connect people together, to help them to know each other better, which is what communities are about. I think that's what we're doing. That's the real story here.
On the potential privacy risks, yes, we know those concerns are here, but I really have the sense at the moment that with the blurring of the images, the elimination of the files, and the “report a concern” mechanisms, I don't see any way in which privacy is in danger.