Google Blogoscoped

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Google to Censor India Satellite Imagery

Several sources report that “sensitive” Indian locations, like government buildings or military sites, will now be blurred in Google Earth, on request of the Indian gov’t (I’m sure that goes for Google Maps too, though the reports don’t explicitly say so).

Other country’s satellite censorship requests have been fulfilled too in the past. German Spiegel writes that this includes military camps in Kosovo, the king’s palace in the Dutch Utrecht, military sites in the UK, as well as IBM research centers in New York.

I see two possible logical stances for Google here; they could argue “we don’t censor satellite imagery for any country, thus giving everyone the same chances to use or abuse the information, which in the end means any strategic advantage will be neutralized.” Or they could argue, “we are giving country A the right to censor their material, so out of fairness, we must give country B the right to censor their material as well.” Taken to the hypothetical extreme, in the first case, nothing is censored, and in the second case, everything is. This being a world of politics, and Google having decided to play politics, the company today falls somewhere inbetween these two stances.

Google censors different tools of theirs – like Google News, Google web search, or Google Earth – based on gov’t or law requests for different countries, like USA, China, Germany, France and others. Google sometimes delays these decisions, like with the Indian satellite imagery (requests for removal date back to October 2005, according to Spiegel), or with China, where it took them many years to start agreeing to self-censorship. Other times, they join voluntary self-censorship organizations, like it’s the case in Germany.

The reasons for censorship requests are varied, though it comes down to whatever locals laws or policies deem “sensitive” material. This can range from hate organizations, to military revelations, to human rights watch groups. And what one country may consider clearly criminalistic activity, like harshly criticizing one’s government, another country may consider to be part of a human right of free speech. Google Inc, through no original intent of their own – only a lack of opposition without compromises – is increasingly becoming the global censorship middleman for all these needs.

There’s an Arab saying that roughly goes like this: “Do not allow a camel to put his nose under the edge of your tent, for soon you will have a camel in your tent.” Well, Google’s tent has a distinct camel smell by now.


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