Censoring Google: What are India’s options?

The latest state of play seems to be the following, cobbled together from various local sources:

Last week, Question Hour in India’s parliament included a question on space imaging, and it prompted an oral supplementary question (procedural definition at #56) that seems to have been reported nearly verbatim here:

New Delhi, Mar 09: The government today said it has taken up with Google Earth the issue of the country’s high security areas and installations being mapped by the agency’s satellites and their pictures put on its internet site.

“Defence ministry and the Ministry of Science and Technology are in touch with the agency over the issue,” Minister of State in the PMO Prithviraj Chauhan told the Rajya Sabha while replying to supplementaries.

When asked whether the government was doing something to ban organisations that were taking high resolution pictures of the country’s secured areas, he said the question should be addressed to the defence ministry.

(“Google Earth Agency.” Has a nice ring to it. Getting closer to the CIC all the time, what with those satellites and all:-)

The government’s response to the supplementary questions was interpreted variously, depending on whom you read, but the gist of it seems to be that the government has promised to, on the one hand, draw up a list of sensitive sites it would like censored, while at the same time investigate technical solutions that could impose censorship unilaterally on the data displayed by Google Earth and Maps inside India, should Google not play along sufficiently.

The options, then, for India:

  1. Get Google to blur sites on the Indian government’s list, globally.
    This would be the simplest solution technically, and also the most noxious censorshipwise. Possible coercive tactics: Prosecuting or banning Google’s Indian operations for breaking Indian law, which prohibits local GIS companies from publishing maps or imagery of India’s “sensitive” sites.
  2. Get Google to blur sites at India’s request for Indian IP addresses.
    “The Chinese solution.” This should be something that Google can implement, and it might blunt resulting criticism in the west in that it wouldn’t degrade the viewing by those outside India. It might also place Google within the letter of Indian law, though absurdly so, as India’s putative enemies would now have full access to high resolution imagery whereas Indian citizens would not.
  3. Blur Google’s images without Google’s consent or cooperation inside India.
    If you are China and have ironclad control on what enters and leaves your country via the internet, then you will likely have an easy time intercepting specific tiles for Google Maps (as they have unique URLs). As for Google Earth, the content stream to the client looks far more complicated to disentangle, and here is where the challenge would lie.

    But India doesn’t have filters on all its nodes to the rest of the internet, as far as I know, so this selective filtering would be impossible. A far cruder solution might be instructing all Indian servers to not honor any request for data coming from Google’s map and image servers, effectively shutting those services down for those in India.

  4. Blur Google’s images without Google’s consent or cooperation, globally.
    Impossible, obviously.

(Of course, if option 1 is implemented, it will be clear to everyone precisely which sites are considered the most vulnerable by India’s intelligence establishment, and in no time at all the publicly available high resolution images of these areas will be collected and turned into overlays ready for download from places like Google Earth Community and Google Earth Hacks. These will be usable by all, inside and outside of India.)

What are Google’s options?

In the US; Google has consistently sided with the individual (its main customer) when it comes to disputes with the government. In China, however, it has decided that censored search is better than broken search, especially if it means access to a huge market. Might Google reach the same conclusion regarding mapping if India figures out a way to pull the plug on Google Earth inside India, and threatens to do so?

Google PR’s response has been:

Google takes governmental concerns about Google Earth and Google Maps very seriously. Google welcomes dialogue with governments, and we will be happy to talk to Indian authorities about any concerns they may have. (Debbie Frost, spokewoman for Google)

…which is PRese for saying nothing at all. Last month, however, this apparently of-the-cuff remark was attributed to Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Google’s vice president for Asia-Pacific and Latin America operations:

“The market in India is changing rapidly,” she told the media. “More people are coming online as the infrastructure for growth expands quickly. We are making certain changes in Google Earth so that the safety and other concerns of various governments could be addressed.”

The two sentences in that quote are so disjointed that they suggest a misquote, and Google hasn’t substantiated its content further. Still, the quote remains, and perhaps she merely spoke too soon.

Google now has a presence in India, both as an employer and as a seller. Should it give in to the Indian government’s censorship demands, then the floodgates will open, and any country with a luddite government where Google wants to do business will now demand the blurring of arbitrary locations as the price of admission.

One thought on “Censoring Google: What are India’s options?”

  1. That’s really true that “The market in India is changing rapidly” and rapid increase in online users now.

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