Exploring Local
Mike Dobson of TeleMapics on Local Search and All Things Geospatial

Google and Smash, Bang, Boom

June 3rd, 2010 by MDob

By now, most of you have read about Google Maps providing walking directions that may have contributed to the user of these directions being hit by a car as she attempted to cross State Route 224 in Park City, Utah. I am neither a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but here is my take on the issues.

The best description of the walking directions fiasco can be found in two articles by Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land, who spoke to the attorney representing the woman struck by the car.

The facts, claimed by the plaintiff, are that she used her BlackBerry to access Google Maps and requested ‘walking directions” between two locations in Park City Utah. Loren Rosenberg traversed the route at six in the morning, when it was dark, and she could not see across the road to determine if the sidewalk she expected to be directed to was actually present or not. While crossing the road she was struck by a car (whose driver is also being sued). Further, it is claimed that warning text (describing the accuracy of the directions) that is now provided on Google’s Website was not presented on the mobile version of the website when the accident victim requested the walking directions in January of 2009.

Of course, with the exception of Danny Sullivan (and his first blog was quite negative about the woman’s actions), the web has been afire with comments. Most of these comments have been about dumb Americans, dumb American drivers, dumb people using the Internet, people lacking common sense using online maps, people lacking common sense about navigation systems and a variety of epithets that, in general, seem to take joy in demeaning the intellectual capabilities of the accident victim. Curiously, many of the comments appear intended to defend the greater glory of Google Maps (even though if Google had examined its own Street View footage, it might have ruled out the route as a reasonable one).

Further, there have been a number of comments playing this tune “It’s a beta…” Oh please! Walking directions have been a beta since July 2008 on the desktop and November 2008 on Mobile. Two years later and the service is still a “beta”?

Well, when will it graduate? Is it the software or the map data that’s still the “beta”, or both? When might we expect a final product? Alternatively, is it possible that Google is attempting to avoid liability by classifying its navigation service as “beta”? Assuredly, all Americans who use online services and the majority of the citizens of other countries of the world using the same services understand what the term “beta” means, as well as possessing complete familiarity with software life cycles. Not a chance!

Some people are just humans, trying to get through their day and using the Internet to help them do so. To the ever-popular “Joe Six-pack”, the Internet and navigation services are like a refrigerator. He uses a refrigerator because it preserves keeps his beer cold until he can drink it. He may not be sure how the refrigerator works, but he has the reasonable expectation that its common name defines what it does. Sort of like “walking directions” – which, of course, differ from something named, say – “potentially dangerous walking directions.”

Those of you who have read this blog for a while know that my background is maps and mapping and that I have had considerable experience in the map business, covering areas of creation, marketing, distribution and liability, which lead me to my next point. Regardless of how you feel about Google or about mapping and routing services, or the general state of map use, you should stop and think about the legal system under which this case and future cases like it will be prosecuted.

First, if this case is tried in a court of law (a state court, likely, but I doubt Google will let the issue go to trial), you should note that the American jurisprudence system and American juries generally lean in the favor of protecting the consumer and that may be a reasonable and socially beneficial goal. Indeed, a group of jurists decided the coffee a 79-year-old woman ordered at a McDonald’s drive-thru was too hot, after she put the cup between her knees, tried to open it, was scalded and subsequently hospitalized for two weeks, when the coffee spilled. The original trial award for the incident was $2.9 million, but later the case was settled for substantially less. (And how many of us still have scars on our tongue after eating a molten hot McDonald’s Apple Pie Tart, baked by a sun lamp to a moderate 3200 degrees Fahrenheit?)

Perhaps most importantly, the lawyer for the plaintiff will argue that the user of Google’s map services has a reasonable right to assume that Google has endeavored to produce a service that can be used for purposes of pedestrian navigation and that the product is safe to use. What, it’s not safe? What, the data has not been tested? What, the company has made assumptions about the integrity of turn-by-turn direction that have not been vetted? What, the company had data in its possession, collected by its own industrious endeavors (Street View), that would have rectified inaccuracies in the route, but the company did not refer to these data when evaluating the safety of its own recommendations?

On the other hand, think of it this way, if you would prefer, with Spencer Tracy playing the plaintiff’s attorney: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client Loren Rosenberg, had an early morning interview across town in Park City, Utah. Her car had broken down and, desperate for a job, she had no alternative but to walk to the appointment, a considerable distance away. Ms. Rosenberg, a mother of 4 young children, did not know the path to her destination and used Google Maps, an application provided on her BlackBerry, to assist her in this journey.”

“Entering her location and the address of her destination resulted in Google’s navigation service providing her with “walking directions” between her current location, at the time, and her intended destination. Due the distance she was away from the destination, according to Google, she needed to leave early to be navigate the path and be on time for the appointment. It was still dark when she began her journey at six in the morning on that cold and snowy day in January 2009. She followed the turn-by-turn directions in the sequence and manner provided by Google, believing that Google was directing her to the safety of a sidewalk on the opposite side of Deer Valley Drive, along which she could continue her journey.

My client was struck by a car and grievously injured while following an instruction in the directions Google provided that required her to cross the road and walk along its other side. Unfortunately, the intersection was not illuminated by street lamp and the written instructions did not indicate that the Deer Valley Drive, a peaceful sounding name, was actually a state highway, a fact that my client could not ascertain in the dark early in the morning as she approached what appeared, to her, to be a lightly traveled street.”

The story will only get better from here. Trust me.

Now Google, in preparing to defend itself will hire experts to wax eloquently about maps, map use, map generalization, turn-by-turn-directions, projections, navigation, disclaimers and a host of technical issues that to the readers of this blog might seem like common sense. However, 99.99 percent of Americans do not read this blog and 99 percent of Americans do not know what you do about mapping, navigation and map databases. I bet your friends eyes glaze over when you start talking shop. My friends have learned that the least mention of something spatial can lead to a 72-hour colloquium and want nothing to do with it. Juries decide cases on what seems reasonable to them and what is reasonable to them is that things that are provided for a specific use “just ought to work.”

I know, some of you are going to say, “…but navigation is free service from Google and you get what you pay for.” Sorry, but maps and directions are a big part of Google’s local advertising strategy and Google makes a significant profit on this and other types of online advertising. Walking down the street is free, but if I slip on business card that you carelessly dropped and injure myself seriously, guess who is going to court?

Litigation and consumer rights will become a significant part of the landscape of online and mobile mapping, navigation systems and Location Based Services. My fear is that cases such as these could stifle innovation in the industry and may serve to penalize smaller firms much more so than larger firms. Welcome to the big leagues.

So, what to do (disclaimer – I am not a lawyer, see a real one for actionable advice)

If you provide a product, talk to a lawyer about your business, risks and expected and potential use-scenarios for your data, platform, applications, and services. Seek capable legal advice on how to best protect and defend your business and your employees.

If you own a small company with online products, be sure that your “terms of use” are prominently displayed and that they provide the suitable warnings and disclaimers for the use of a product or service of the type you provide. Make sure a competent lawyer crafts these terms.

Create a functional and durable corporate memory (written). In an issue that I was involved in recently, there was a question of when an action was originally taken by an Internet firm. The issue revolved around when particular software functionality was first provided and when it was later altered. As in most start-ups, no one had a clue about the timing of the company’s software release dates, other than the day they launched their website and maybe their first app. All subsequent changes to the code and functionality disappeared when the tapes were wiped as part of their backup recovery of storage media.

As a side note, this is why it is so difficult to create a valid history of the Internet. Most of us were so happy to finish something that we pushed it to “live” and then started revising it with all the new features we could not get to the last time. Almost no one bothered to write down when things happened; we considered the stuff that was live as old and uninteresting. Anyway, we were working on the good stuff.

What might happen in the Google case?

Many of things could happen, but it is often cheaper to settle legal issues than to litigate them. Defending an injury case could, for example, run over a million dollars at a minimum and, for this reason, settlement is often a preferred outcome. In addition, a complex court case will require the time of many of your most talented technical staff, who could be creating new applications and this is another pressure that leads to settlement. Finally, there is the common problem that the only person who really knows how the functionality works either just left your employment or is that “special” member of your staff (don’t feign ignorance)that you don’t want talking to other humans.

If Google choosed to settle, the settlement will be confidential and no one will actually know the result, other than Google and the plaintiff, who will be bound by a mutual confidentiality pact. If Google chooses to litigate and loses, it will likely then offer a better settlement than the court offered and convince the other side to vacate the case and the judgment, so that it will be as if the case never happened. Then we can start this all over again with someone else, but without a precedent.

See how smart reading the blog has made you? Oh, I can “feel” the comments already. It’s going to be uncomfortable – kinda like eating one of those old McDonald’s Apple Pies I mentioned earlier.

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Posted in Authority and mapping, Data Sources, Google, Google maps, landmarks and navigation, pedestrian navigation, Personal Navigation, routing and navigation


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