Oh the irony: Google Earth ban in Sudan is due to US export restrictions

I’ve been sending emails to people located in Sudan asking if they could corroborate the Sudan aid worker’s strange report of no longer being able to download copies of Google Earth locally, though still being able to access the data servers. Somebody at the (wonderful) Sudan Tribune was kind enough to try, and even sent me a screenshot of the result:


That’s exactly the same error message that the aid worker got — and it certainly looks like it’s being served by Google.

What’s going on? A response from Google has now solved the mystery. Sudan isn’t censoring anything. The US is restricting access to Google Earth in Sudan. So says Google spokesperson Megan Quinn in an email:

In accordance with US export controls and economic sanctions regulations, we are unable to permit the download of Google Earth in Sudan. More information about these controls and sanctions can be found here and here.

I went looking, and found some relevant extracts, first from the US Treasury’s site:

SELLING TO SUDAN – Except for information or informational materials and donated articles intended to relieve human suffering, such as food, clothing and medicine, and the licensed export of agricultural commodities, medicine and medical devices, no goods, technology, or services may be exported from the United States to Sudan, either directly or through third countries, without a license.

There are exceptions for humanitarian NGOs and such, but not of the kind that allows downloads of software as is made clear by a page on the Bureau of Industry and Security’s website:

This rule also allows the export of software controlled under ECCNs 4D994 and 5D992 that is used in conjunction with such basic telecommunications devices or computers. However, the rule is not intended to be a vehicle for software exports per se. The software must be loaded onto the commodity prior to being exported and remain loaded on the commodity while in Sudan. These two software ECCN’s were included in the rule so that the commodities authorized for export by the rule could function in Sudan. They include typical “mass market” operating systems and applications software (such as office suite, email and web browser programs) for personal computers, cell phones and personal digital assistants. This rule does not authorize the transport of software controlled under any other ECCN to Sudan.

And even then, you have to be an NGO working under USAID authorization in Sudan. Only then can you bring a copy of Google Earth into Sudan, on your laptop. (If you’re not an American, I assume you may do whatever you want:-)

I don’t know if Google can apply for and get a license from the US government for internet downloads of Google Earth in Sudan, but it certainly sounds like it would need one before such downloads are legal. (I wonder then, too, if small software companies selling software online also have to check that the purchaser’s provenance isn’t an IP from Sudan?)

There are cases where sanctions have worked in the past (notably against South Africa under apartheid), and targeted sanctions also make sense for Sudan — for example, Rolls Royce shouldn’t be there, as oil-sector sanctions are key — but often the collateral damage is huge. In the case of Google Earth not being available for download in Sudan just as it becomes the single best tool for visualizing the genocide there, it is also highly ironic.

So let us count the ways in which the current implementation of US export restrictions on software downloads are nonsensical:

  • It’s completely ineffective. The internet is built to circumvent precisely this kind of constraint on information. The use of proxy servers (like Tor) and peer-to-peer networks (like Bittorrent) makes a mockery of any attempt to prevent the leakage of software into specific geographic areas once it has hit the internet. Laws have to be enforceable to be ethical. This one isn’t enforceable.
  • But let’s assume for a moment the download ban were effective. Then the people who have the most use for Google Earth — local aid workers and those Sudanese who want access to uncensored information about the genocide being conducted in their own country — are least able to access it.

Sudan’s president al-Bashir is no doubt grateful to the US right now that his people are being shielded from some rather unpleasant truths about his regime. Perhaps other despots can take note and also start clamoring for US export bans on Google Earth.

(In the meantime, Declan Butler, Brian Timoney, Brian Flood and USHMM’s Michael Graham are looking into producing a version of the Crisis in Darfur layers for Google Maps, which, if you’re in Sudan, you will only be allowed to view on a Norwegian web browser:-)

PS: How does US export law treat web applications and web plugins? Virtual Earth 3D? Google Docs? Where does “information” end and “software” begin? Where does open source software reside, legally? Can I download NASA World Wind in Sudan? Can I send copies of Google Earth Free from Cairo to friends in Sudan if I’m American? What if I’m Belgian? Just asking hypothetically, of course:-)

6 thoughts on “Oh the irony: Google Earth ban in Sudan is due to US export restrictions”

  1. Nice story :) How did you manage to get a response from google, I can’t even find an email address for google legal.

  2. USA is the land of freedom, why they are imposing sanctions on simple Sudanese citizens,the goverment officals are safe in their villas simple Sudanese citizens are the one who suffers US sanctiones

    best regards


  3. Not only in Sudan, Syria is on the list now…

    Sanctions are targetting sitizens, not government officials who have sattlite internet connections, where nothing is baned, which is not allowed to normal sitizens…

    Who is really suffering from such ban??

    Hint: peaple Americans try to help be free…

  4. This is probably an unintended effect of the law. Laws are made but they are imperfect. It seems that the intended effect of the law was to prohibit exports that would hinder humanitarian actions there. I know that the humanitarian actions would also be needing google earth, but it is really unintended.


    Mandino P. Cheng

    The Emma Academy Project

    This project will be building a school there in Sudan. To be built in Leer, Sudan, the school will be fostering the children and at the same time nurturing the minds of the young children there. This school will be for the children of Sudan, keeping them away from the effects of war. This school is in honor of Emma McCune, the angel who saved the WarChild. To help build a school, we would need to support this cause.

  5. One expects sophisticated analysts at the State Department, Think Tanks and other US foreign policy related bodies would soon realize that sanctions do not harm regimes that commit the worst atrocities agaist their own people, but their victims. Those whom sactions are intended to harm normally escape unharmed. Sanctions in fact harm the very people who, I am sure, all would long to help.

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