Microsoft Readies Streetside In Europe

Having learned from Google's mistakes with Street View, Microsoft is laying the groundwork for mobile and location-based services.
Microsoft is preparing to introduce its street level imagery service, Streetside, in Europe, even as privacy concerns in the U.S. threaten online service providers and marketers with rules limiting data collection. On Tuesday, Senate lawmakers proposed privacy legislation that, if passed, would require online companies to provide more details about how they use customer data and to obtain consent for collecting personal information.

Launched in the U.S. in late 2009 as a Bing Maps Beta feature, Streetside has avoided the controversy stirred up by Google Street View, which debuted in mid-2007.

Google was slow to realize the extent to which privacy concerns would hobble its ability to innovate. The company has had to deal with incidents in which one Street View driver drove onto a military base in Texas and another found his route blocked by suspicious villagers in the UK. It has had to block faces and licenses plates and to convince governments not to ban Street View. It has had to re-shoot Street View imagery when authorities in Japan objected to cameras positioned high enough to see into homeowners' fenced yards.

And just as opposition to the company was starting to gain traction, Google revealed that it had been inadvertently collecting unprotected data Wi-Fi through its Street View image-gathering cars. Fines and lawsuits followed.

Only last fall, when Google appointed Alma Whitten to be its director of privacy for products and engineering, did it seem like the company had awoken to the impact of privacy gaffes.

Microsoft, still stiff from the scars of its regulatory battles decades ago, has wisely steered clear of the privacy tar pit and has worked to make privacy a point of competitive differentiation. It has consistently presented itself as a supporter of privacy and has been quick to support concepts like the "do-not-track" proposal for Web browsers.

With Streetside, Microsoft has maintained its pro-privacy posture.

"Privacy is imbued in everything we do," said Dave Coplin, Microsoft's UK director of search, told the BBC.

The company insists the its street level imagery and Bing Maps "were designed with security and privacy concerns in mind." It says its software will automatically detect and blur faces and license plates and that the company accepts requests to blur or remove images of people, homes, cars, acts of violence, nudity, and unlawful material.

This isn't significantly different from what Google does now, but Microsoft can make such statements unburdened by the past that haunts its competition. Or nearly: Microsoft will have to provide Germans with the right to opt-out of Streetside, a right established as a result of objections to Google's Street View. But other than that, Microsoft has consulted with European regulators to ease its passage through the thicket of European privacy regulation.

"We will fully comply with the laws as they apply in each local country," a Microsoft spokesperson said via email. "This will inevitably lead to slight variations in how and what information we collect in some markets, but the principle of what the service is intended to provide to users remains the same in each of those countries."

Microsoft's drivers are now traversing the UK and are expected to hit continental roads next month.

Assuming Microsoft can successfully navigate this gauntlet, the company can look forward to monetizing its Streetside images and maps in Europe through location-based services and advertising, particularly on mobile devices, if and when Windows Phone 7 devices take off.