Belgium vs. Google: Google Earth’s turn

What is up with Belgium?

First, Belgian francophone newspapers throw a legal hissy fit about Google’s links to their articles being accompanied by snippets of context so that users might actually want to click on them. It’s obviously fair use on the part of Google, but a luddite Belgian court found otherwise, and now Google has complied by removing Le Soir et al. entirely from Le Soir must really hate the hassle of serving all that traffic that Google sends them, and then there’s all those bloggers that find their stories via Google and insouciantly post excerpts with links to them! The gall of some people!

Second, and far more relevant to this blog, on Tuesday a Flemish TV channel’s evening news reported that the Belgian military now wants high resolution images of their bases removed or obscured on Google Earth and Maps, according to the always reliable Belgeoblog (in Dutch). Apparently, “the strategically important images should not be available to everyone.” Presumably, they should just be available to people who really really want them for some reason and will thus buy them directly off the vendor.

As recently as May this year, the Belgian military said the exact opposite, and this was proudly reported on Ogle Earth (I’m Belgian, see?). Then, the military said it was “not afraid” of such imagery being useful to terrorists, that such imagery was already public anyway, and that without context it was meaningless. All of those arguments are as true now as they were in May — for example, here is some publicly available high resolution imagery of nuclear weapons bunkers in Belgium that is not served by Google, as an overlay on Google Earth, again courtesy of Belgeoblog.

So what changed between now and then? Well, Belgeoblog thinks that this institutional schizophrenia points to disagreement within the military establishment on how to deal with the ongoing democratization of geospatial data. But something else changed since May: Belgium got a partial upgrade to its imagery in Google Earth, so that now a non-trivial chunk of the country is at the same high resolution as the Netherlands. Indeed, much of Belgium’s new (aerial) imagery is taken by the same company that scanned the Netherlands in its entirety — AeroData. (AeroData happens to be Belgian, operating out of Antwerp’s Deurne airport.)

My guess, then, is that some general nearing retirement discovered Google Earth last week, zoomed in on his barracks, saw the new imagery, and got yanked into the 21st century a tad too forcefully.

The Dutch government’s censorship of AeroData’s imagery has been well documented on Ogle Earth. It’s deplorable, but the Dutch have laws dated from the cold war that allow them to censor the imaging taken by planes in its airspace before the vendor is allowed to take it into the public domain. Belgeoblog says that Belgium has no such laws on its books, and that therefore all the military can do is whine. I hope that’s true (though it’s hard to verify), but I’m also not putting it beyond the abilities of Belgian courts to come up with some completely spurious argument as to why if Google is doing this, it should be banned. If there is no fair use in Belgium, what else is fair game?