Dad Convinces Google to Remove Images of Slain Son

When Jose Barrera’s 14-year-old son was found shot to death along a lonely stretch of railroad tracks near their home in Richmond, California, four years ago, his heart was broken. Now, because of a Google Maps image of his son Kevin’s body that's been making its way around the Web, the father is crushed all over again. “The memories have been coming back really fast,” he tells Yahoo Shine about the unsolved murder. “It’s really painful.” Luckily, Google has been quick to respond, promising to remove the photo.

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The aerial image — of a sprawled body with a handful of cops and others standing nearby — appears to have been inadvertently captured by Google Maps. And Barrera says he’s confident that it’s his son, based on the scene and on what the person is wearing. “I was there,” he says. “The police came to my house and said, ‘This is your son,’ and I said, ‘No it’s not” and then they took me there.’”

Now Barrera wants Google to remove the photo. Though the father had no luck getting through to anyone himself, a call from Yahoo Shine helped prompt the company to release the following statement from Brian McClendon, VP of Google Maps: "Our hearts go out to the family of this young boy. Since the media first contacted us about the image, we’ve been looking at different technical solutions. Google has never accelerated the replacement of updated satellite imagery from our maps before, but given the circumstances we wanted to make an exception in this case. We believe we can update this in eight days, and we’ve spoken to the family to let them know we’re working hard on the update."

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Barrera explains that it was local reporter Christin Ayers, from KPIX, who first alerted him to the photo. Ayers tells Yahoo Shine that she first discovered the Google image through an Australian news site that reported the photo’s existence along with that of an apparent murder scene on a pier in the Netherlands, found posted on Reddit. Ayers confirmed with the Richmond police that the photo was authentic and that it was of Barrera.

The response from Google is apparently a coup, as getting photos removed from major search engines is “not an easy process in general,” according to Beth Givens of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a California nonprofit focused on protecting people’s privacy online and elsewhere (who spoke with Shine before Google issued its response.) And the most difficult part, as Barrera has quickly discovered, is making initial contact.

“Getting a live human at any of these places — Google, Facebook — is a challenge,” Givens tells Yahoo Shine. “But every company these days has a privacy officer, and I would strongly recommend people in this type of situation contact that person. I find they are quite accessible.” 

Google recently removed some images from its database, but only when forced to through court rulings. Just this month, a French court ordered the company to remove recurring links to images of former motor racing Formula One chief Max Mosley, who was photographed at an orgy with prostitutes in 2008. And the company was not pleased.

“This is a troubling ruling with serious consequences for free expression, and we will appeal it,” Google's Associate General Counsel Daphne Keller noted in a statement. “Even though we already provide a fast and effective way of removing unlawful material from our search index, the French court has instructed us to build what we believe amounts to a censorship machine.”

Google also lost an appeal recently to a federal appeals court. In that lawsuit, the company was accused of violating federal wiretap law when it accidentally collected emails and other personal data while building its popular Street View program. Also, shortly after launching in the UK in 2009, Google received hundreds of removal requests by people who felt that some of the images captured — including one of a man exiting a sex shop — were invasive.

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