The Middle East is where Google Earth has perhaps had the deepest geopolitical impact since its introduction in June 2005. In these 5+ years, the wide availability of high resolution imagery of the region to anyone with an internet connection has caused a slew of governments to fret, and not just the Arab dictatorships — Israel and the UK have also worried, as we’ll see.
In his New York Times op-ed column on Wednesday, Thomas Friedman calls Google Earth one of the “not-so-obvious forces” behind the revolutionary fervor currently gripping the Middle East. The reason cited by Friedman: in 2006, Google made visible the opulent palaces of Bahrain’s ruling family to a populace in the grip of a housing shortage. Outrage ensued, albeit online. The inequalities were simply too striking.
Friedman doesn’t mention the most interesting aspect of this episode: The story only gained traction after Bahrain’s embarrassed sheiks, in a typically autocratic move, ordered the country’s ISPs to block access to Google Earth’s imagery, in August 2006. (I wrote about the story here and here). The response was a perfect example of the Streisand effect: Suddenly, everybody in Bahrain was curious about what they weren’t allowed to see. One enterprising activist took screenshots of the imagery (still available to everyone outside bahrain) and turned it into a PDF, which became an instant email hit. (You can still download it from Ogle Earth’s server via this story). After three days, Bahrain’s rulers were humiliated into restoring access to Google Earth.
This is just one anecdote of many that Friedman could have used — but for some reason, it is the Bahrain story that has recently been doing the rounds again, for example in the just-launched The Daily for iPad.
What about the others? Here’s a quick tour of Google Earth’s uses in the Middle East this past half decade.
Tunisia: You know what Google bombing is. In 2008, activists did something similar in Google Earth, “Google Earth bombing” the palace of (now ex-) president Ben Ali with YouTube testimonies of political prisoners. Anyone who zoomed in on his palace would see geopositioned YouTube icons, each one ready to play a video detailing the nastiness of his regime.
Sudan: Sudan has had a rather schizophrenic relationship with Google Earth. For a long time, Google Earth was not available for download in Sudan — not because Sudan’s government blocked it, but because US export restrictions made it illegal for Google to offer it. At the same time, recent satellite imagery of burned villages in Darfur as the Sudanese regime waged war on its own citizens, highlighted by Google through new default layers, brought that conflict home in new ways to everyone except the Sudanese.
Iraq: Iraq is one of the few parts of the globe not to regularly receive new imagery in Google Earth. (Afghanistan is another). The reason for this dates back to early in 2007, when British troops in Basra said they had found CDs with screen dumps of Google Earth imagery of their camps in the local market, arguing that insurgents could use this to fine-tune their mortar attacks. Never mind that the imagery was over two years old, and that it was available for sale elsewhere: In the only proven case of active censoring by Google to date, the company removed all post-war imagery in Iraq, replacing it with older imagery. Eventually, the imagery in question was removed from sale by other vendors as well.
Iran: Never mind that until a few weeks ago, Google Earth was not available in Iran (US export restrictions, again): Some Iranians have long been upset that the Persian Gulf is labeled not just with that name in Google Earth… but also as the Arabian Gulf, which is the name taught in schools in the UAE and the rest of the non-Persian Gulf states. Google using both place names, with an explanation why, simply didn’t cut it for these Iranians, and the result was a massive online petition to demand that Google remove the offending “Arabian Gulf” moniker. When I last checked, 1,242,141 people had signed the petition. Google’s response: A detailed naming policy, which unsurprisingly did not appease Iran’s foreign ministry.
Saudi Arabia: A Saudi researcher caused a stir when he used Google Earth to check whether some of Saudi Arabia’s main mosques were accurately aligned in the direction of the Qibla, i.e. Mecca, and found that some were wanting.
Syria: Satellite imagery in Google Earth has been used by various actors as publicly available evidence to convince the public that Syria’s government was up to no good, such as building a secret nuclear power plant with North Korean help (now bombed by Israel), or allegedly letting Hezbollah hoard Scud missiles.
Israel: Google Earth’s user-contributed layers have been used by sympathizers of the Palestinian cause to influence the narrative of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: In 2006, an exhaustive annotated list of Israeli settlements in the West Bank was added to the Google Earth Community layer; in 2008, another layer purported to show Arab villages in Israel that had been ethnically cleansed during the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence. One town, Kiryat Yam, was apparently added in error to the list, which led it to sue Google for slander, while other pro-Israel interest groups accused Google of anti-Israel bias (though they did so on ungrounded assumptions.)
Israel has long had special treatment when it comes to the resolution of publicly available satellite imagery of its territory. Due to an American law, the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment, US imagery providers cannot currently sell imagery of Israel that is better than 2 meters per pixel in resolution, which is artificially lowered from the maximum resolution available by the same satellite over the rest of the world. Israel is the only country that has this exemption. Not even US nuclear power plants have this kind of legal cover.
One oft-cited reason for this need for “protection”: Stories showing militants bragging about how they use Google Earth to plan their attacks. The only problem is, 2m-resolution imagery is plenty accurate if you are trying to plan a rocket launch out of Gaza.
In sum, Google Earth has had quite an impact on the region. My own guess is that geographic awareness of the region has greatly improved, not just globally, but by Arabs themselves. On the Yemeni island of Socotra in February 2009, I walked into the only internet café in a 400km radius. The first screen I saw had Google Earth’s familiar globe on it, with rapt teenagers steering it, doing their homework. These kids’ perspectives of the world, so radically different from their parents, are one major factor driving the current revolutions in the Arab world.