Google Earth, India and international law

India’s CNN-IBN television news channel interviews India’s Deputy National Security Adviser Vijay Nambiar about the government’s continuing attempts to censor publicly available high resolution images of India, of the kind licensed by Google for Google Earth.

Let’s first get out of the way the fact that the tone of the reporter, Surya Gangadharan, is not neutral, nor factually correct:

Google Earth captured these images and put them on the internet for the world to see. And it publicised these pictures without even consulting India. Not surprisingly, the Indian security establishment isn’t amused.

But what did Nambiar have to say?

CNN-IBN: How serious a security issue is this?

Nambiar: There are certain security parameters to be met and we have been discussing these in the committee of secretaries as to how we can directly get in touch with Google and other organisations to see our basic security environment is safeguarded. It is a basic principle that if satellite pictures are taken over a particular country, then the permission of that country has to be taken.

CNN-IBN: What can be done to ensure this does not recur. Are we looking at an agreement with Google?

Nambiar: It has to be an international agreement. Individual companies or individual parties should adhere to certain common standards and there should be some kind of action should be taken when these standards are violated.

When Nambiar maintains there exists “a basic principle”, he is presumably referring to Principles Relating to Remote Sensing of the Earth from Outer Space, a UN General Assembly resolution from 1986, a time when only states engaged in satellite imaging, predominantly for spying. UN General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, and not a source of international treaty law, but presumably the tack Nambiar and his committee will take is that this resolution embodies customary practice, and hence can be construed as customary international law.

The problem with such a line of argumentation is that the resolution, like most other General Assembly resolutions, does not in fact reflect long-standing practice, from which customary international law might be derived. (General Assembly resoolutions are usually aspirational in nature.) Nambiar and the Indian government would have to show there has been a long and continuous record of governmental protest against private companies acquiring and selling satellite imagery. And there isn’t. Six months of being upset in response to some jingoistic newsreporting about images that have been around for over a decade does not international law make.

Nambiar furthermore hints that he would like to enshrine this supposed custom in some kind of “international agreement”, treaty law that would be a source of international law and thus binding on its signatories. But the actors in such treaties are governments, not companies, and I think it highly unlikely the US would willingly place such draconian curbs on its many satellite imaging companies.

[Update 17:51 UTC: Vijay Nambiar was recently appointed as a special advisor to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. This could be a further hint as to what the international policy intentions of the Indian government are for putting the technology genie back in its bottle.]

[Update 18:21 UTC: Here is a post from December 2005 about a Christian Science Monitor article that mentions the General Assembly treaty.]

3 thoughts on “Google Earth, India and international law”

  1. Hi folks,

    I have just read your “Google Earth, India and International Law” article.

    With regard to the statement:

    “But the actors in such treaties are governments, not companies, and I think it highly unlikely the US would willingly place such draconian curbs on its many satellite imaging companies.”

    With all due respect, I think someone is living in fairyland. For example:

    It will be interesting to see how the US military deals with your imagery of the notorious Area 51 at Groom Lake in Nevada.

    Previous satellite imagery of Area 51 recorded for a global mapping program and made available to the general public consists of a single high resolution image showing the terrain and buildings. On highest magnification no personnel, equipment or vehicles are visible. Obviously that imagery was recorded by mutual agreement so the US military can be seen to comply with global mapping requirements.

    And perhaps that is how it should be for security purposes – who am I to judge? I personally doubt that Google Earth will ever be able to make more interesting imagery of the Wonderland site available online to the general public. But I am willing to be proved wrong.



  2. Firebird, a couple of points:

    You can see airplanes parked on Area 51.

    The US can and does censor US satellite imaging companies, but cannot and does not censor foreign satellite imaging companies. Google is not a satellite imaging company and can buy imagery from any provider, US or foreign.

    The question is whether any other government should get to decide what US satellite imaging companies are allowed to make public and sell. There is only one semi-exception, as far as I know, for US satellite companies: To keep their licence as satellite operators, The US forbids them from selling imagery of Israel at resolutions higher than what is publicly available from foreign vendors.

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