Belgeoblog interviews Belgian senator about censoring Google Earth

I’m shocked: Pascal Laureyn of Belgeoblog did some actual reporting, unlike the rest of us lazy bloggers, and interviewed Belgian senator Christine Defraigne, the member of the intelligence oversight committee who has been most vocal about her intention to censor aerial imagery of Belgium of the kind displayed in Google Earth.

Pascal writes a comprehensive article that looks at all the angles, including the effect of Google Earth on recent elections in Bahrain, the sanguine report on Google Earth in Belgium’s 2005 yearly intelligence assessment, and the current law in the Netherlands which allows the censoring of a list of sensitive sites from new imagery taken in Dutch airspace. Luckily, he writes in Dutch, which allows me to make myself useful by translating. Here are some of the bits with her responses in it:

Is our security brought into danger via Google Earth? Senator Christine Defraigne thinks so. “Those photos can be used by terrorist organizations,” the senator said in a telephone conversation with “That’s why I want that we get more strict in our approach.”

(She then comments on the sanguine 2005 end-of-year report, and says it is out of date, because it is based on “information from September 2004”. That doesn’t make any sense, though, as Google Earth was only introduced in June of 2005, and the report is clearly about Google Earth, not Keyhole.)

“State security has said that they’d rather work with combating the dangerous organizations directly, than to outline the potential danger of satellite photos. Of course we should combat those organizations, but I don’t think that’s enough and that we need to forbid the publication of some images,” says Christine Defraigne. […]

That’s why the senator is working on a new parliamentary report. “Maybe we should make a list with precise definitions that define which terrains may not be filmed or photographed. I’m not just thinking about our military terrains, but also our economic and scientific resources.” That report will be presented to parliament at the end of 2006 or early 2007. […]

Does it make any sense to try to stop the spreading of satellite and aerial imagery on the internet, given the exponential growth of such data? “We know it’s not easy,” says Defraigne, because the internet is global and diffuse. But we can’t give in just because everything is already on the internet; then we don’t protect anything any more. I find it essential that the government protects our terrains and buildings.”

Christine Defrainge admits that it will be difficult to impose sanctions on a company if it impinges on an eventual injunction against publishing images of certain areas. Certainly if the photos are made with a foreign satellite. “But I do not want to say that we should not take up our responsibility, even if it seems like a battle between David and Goliath.” […]

Senator Defraigne sees a solution along the Dutch model as being possible. “It’s like freedom of speech. It is a valuable right, but not an absolute right. Everybody must be able to say what they want, but for example slander and the denial of the holocaust are not allowed.”

“If it is about our national security, then we have to take measures. Other states have done that too. The right to information is important, but sometimes there are interests that are more important.”

Now I get to editorialize: I think Defraigne shows in this interview that she does not grasp how the Dutch law works (it’s on new imagery, not old), nor does she seem informed about the jurisdiction of national laws (airspace yes, space no). She does not seem familiar with the intelligence reports themselves. She also seems to think that Belgian law should have a say on what data server farms in the US can keep.

I also thinks she is cavalier about constraining free speech — she seems to think that holocaust denial laws are quite normal, when in fact most of the world (including the US) does not have them, because freedom of speech is also about protecting odious speech. That’s the whole point of it. Otherwise you have to decide what’s odious and what’s not, and who gets to decide that? I’m sure Defraigne would love to have a go.

2 thoughts on “Belgeoblog interviews Belgian senator about censoring Google Earth”

  1. I understand their position to protect their military and scientific places. They are ok about pictures of houses and the rest of the country land. So this could be an answer: Google can patch those military terrains that the Belgian country don’t want it to be updated with the ones we already have, so the rest of the country will be updated and in high resolution except the military bases and the protected areas. Users want to see the places they live, they travel, they grow, the majority are not interested in “lets look at this country military secrets” and if they got that curiosity they can face a low resolution area, perfectly understandable.

    In short: non-update low resolution patches for specific protected areas of Belgium (the patches don’t have to be a whole square just polygon draw area.)

  2. I think that’s a terrible idea. Who gets to decide which parts Google should censor? Does North Korea and Sudan get to decide too? And what is it about Google Earth users that makes them so dangerous? I would worry about about other countries’ satellites, and people with deep pockets who can buy from anyone. Why should they have access and not us? If a a secret is given away simply by taking an aerial picture then it is obviously not being protected properly.

    And balanced against this is the important right in democracies of being able to check and balance the the activities of your state institutions, including the government and army. Also, this imagery is most useful in emergency situations, and if it is full of holes, or can’t be trusted, then you could do real harm if you try to rely on it in a tight spot.

    So, in sum, we need to have as much transparency as possible around the world. The less governments can hide, the better.

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