The strange creature that is the Kyl-Bingaman amendment has reached a measure of mainstream recognition this past week, with a critical article in Mother Jones prompting a further piece by PC Mag on the US law. Long-time readers of Ogle Earth will be familiar with the amendment, argued against back in 2007, which has effectively kept the commercially available resolution of satellite imagery of Israel and the Occupied Territories at 2.5m per pixel vs an operational maximum of around 50cm per pixel for current commercial satellites. (That’s a 25x artificial reduction in detail).
The Kyl-Bingaman amendment prohibits US companies from selling imagery of Israel at a higher resolution than commercially available elsewhere — currently that France’s Spot Image, which sells 2.5m per pixel imagery of Israel. Russian and South Korean satellite imagery providers, meanwhile, have agreements with Israel not to sell imagery of Israel at higher resolutions than France’s satellites. (There are possibly other such agreements, between Israel and other countries.) As a result, American companies GeoEye and DigitalGlobe pixellate their imagery of Israel before they sell it to the likes of Google.
The impetus for Mother Jones revisiting this law is the news that a Turkish company will soon be launching a high-resolution imaging satellite that can upset the current status quo re Israel. When launched in 2013, The Göktürk satellite will be able to provide imagery to the public at resolutions better than 2m per pixel, including of Israel and Israeli-controlled territories. According to reports, Israel has already tried to negotiate an agreement with Turkey to limit the sale of imagery of Israel, but Turkey is pointedly not playing ball, which is not surprising considering the current freeze in their bilateral relations.
The upshot is that by 2013, Google may well be able to buy higher resolution imagery of Israel from Göktürk. But if Göktürk imagery is commercially available at, say, 1m per pixel, then that will free American companies to also sell commercially at that resolution, as per the Kyl-Bingaman amendment.
Intriguingly, there is yet another new satellite constellation being developed that may substantially improve on the time-frame for availability of higher-resolution imagery of Israel: France’s Pleiades satellites, due to launch this year and next, have a maximum resolution of 50cm per pixel. What remains to be seen is whether Israel convinces their operators to also limit commercial access to imagery of Israel.
(Fact check: PC Mag erroneously believes the amendment is currently interpreted to allow imagery of 1m per pixel. They should have kept on reading the Washington Report article that they reference.)