Did Vint Cerf just agree to censor Google Earth?

Wow. Did Google uber-evangelist Vint Cerf really just say this on a visit to India?

“our policy is when have an issue…arising from national authorities…we take it (imageries) away. We do understand that problem”.

That quote comes from a Press Trust of India article, which unhelpfully abridges the quote and mangles it somewhat, but if the original meaning hasn’t been changed then that amounts to the first official admission by Google that it has a policy of complying with government demands for censorship of its aerial imagery.

That just sucks in so many ways, especially as Vint himself knows all the arguments why such censorship is pointless, as he goes on to explain:

Cerf, co-designer with Robert Kahn of TCP/IP protocols and basic architecture of the Internet, however, sought to rubbish claims that imageries of Google Earth are leading to security concerns.

“Data that we are using is not ours. Typically, its available for free like NASA landsat. Anyone could have access to it. So, removing it from Google Earth does not necessarily solve the problems. Because imagery is there. It’s also commercially accessible”, he pointed out.

Cerf added: “If you want that information (about sensitive sites), particularly if someone deliberately wanted the security overhead in order to mount an attack…if they have a coherent capability to attack, probably they may also have the ability to purchase the information”.

In other words, the only people that are harmed by such censorship are citizens who might be able to use aerial imagery as checks and balances on governments, but don’t otherwise have the resources. As in Bahrain. Or India. Or China. Or Sudan. Or Zimbabwe. In other cases, censored imagery might prevent lives from being saved, as in the Netherlands. Or Pakistan.

The conclusion I’m drawn to: Google will comply to censorship demands in those places where governments can make business difficult for Google. So far it appears to have been the case with China, India, and the UK (via Basra in Iraq). South Korea is still trying.

And what’s up with this?

Google officials said sensitive locations as identified by the government could be blurred or camouflaged or distorted using some methods, including lowering of resolution.

I thought Google’s policy was not to blur or camouflage or distort, but merely to replace newer imagery with older? India’s press is not always reliable, but this sounds like an actual reported comment.

Here’s what I’d like to see Google give to its users to offset its complaisance to governments: Transparency regarding what it is censoring. That list of sensitive sites India has given Google? Part of the deal for Google agreeing to censor should be that the list be made public. Censoring is one thing — but not telling us what is being censored taints the credibility of the entire atlas.

And perhaps such transparency will mean that the Indian government thinks twice about its choices, because it knows they be held up to public scrutiny.

A public debate about what censorship — if any — is justified allows citizens to judge for themselves whether governments are crossing the line in their censoriousness. Without this transparency, we citizens don’t know how much we don’t know. Personally, I find such a situation unbearable.

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