Back in 2007, aid workers in Sudan reported that they were unable to download Google Earth from Sudanese IP addresses. The same was soon confirmed for Cuban and Syrian IPs — these locations instead were getting a vague rejection message from Google. The culprit was soon outed — US export restrictions made such downloads illegal, and Google was making sure it was complying with US law.
The self-defeating nature of US export control laws that most handicapped those fighting for transparency and justice in countries like Sudan, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe was not lost on sane observers. Such views were also made loud and clear to the US Congress by internet governance specialists such as Rebecca MacKinnon, who as recently as March 2 this year reiterated the obvious in her testimony to the US Senate on internet freedom.
Eager to check whether this meant Google Earth is now once again available in Sudan, I asked a local to try to download Google Earth last week. The result was unexpected:
Still no Google Earth available in Sudan? I asked Google what’s up, and the response by someone familiar with the situation (as the WSJ would put it) was “we’re working on the changes since the day of the US pronouncement. There is much to do, actually, but we are very excited about it!”
So look out for Google Earth being available in Sudan, Iran and Cuba in the very near future. As for why or if Syrian and Zimbabwean netizens are still in the doghouse, I don’t know, but at least small progressive victories are better than no victories at all.
[Update 2010-03-25: Export Law Blog read through the announcement and concluded that the new US export permissions do not cover Google Earth. So I went back to my sources at Google, and they again confirmed that in their view, there is now nothing preventing Google Earth availability in these previously restricted countries. The only thing holding back immediate availability is work being done internally to localize the application for the best possible user experience.]