An article in today’s Christian Science Monitor looks at what legal recourse countries might have should they feel sufficiently offended or exposed by Google Earth.
The article gives room to both sides of the debate. On the side of those who believe there might be a legal recourse for countries to constrain Google is Ram Jakhu, a professor of space law at McGill University in Montreal, who points to what the article calls “a 1986 UN resolution” which states that satellite photography “shall not be conducted in a manner detrimental to the legitimate rights and interests of the sensed State.” He concludes from this that “The US is under obligation to make sure these images are not being distributed in a manner other countries consider harmful,” according to the article.
The resolution in question is in fact a General Assembly resolution, Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space. General Assembly resolutions are not binding treaties, and hence easily neglected as a source of international law, which is why authors of GA resolutions tend to encode impossible objectives.
The Principles have suddenly become quite dated, reading them at the end of 2005, post-release of Google Earth. The language is clearly aimed at actors that are states, not private corporations or individuals. In 1986, the output from imaging satellites was primarily for state actors — the idea that individuals might one day consume such intelligence without state interference was clearly beyond imagining. Consider, for example Principle XI:
Remote sensing shall promote the protection of mankind from natural disasters. To this end, States participating in remote sensing activities that have identified processed data and analysed information in their possession that may be useful to States affected by natural disasters, or likely to be affected by impending natural disasters, shall transmit such data and information to States concerned as promptly as possible.
When it came to the Pakistan quake, this kind of “principle” proved wholly superseded by events. A private company (Google) made satellite imagery available from a private satellite imaging (Digital Globe) via a distributed network (the internet) to individuals and NGOs who then used the information to organize relief efforts. What state initiative there was involved Pakistan trying to hinder this dissemination of data.