Google Earth as an Agent of Political Change in Bahrain

May 18th, 2007

In today’s keynote conversation at PDF between the NY Times’s Thomas Friedman and Google CEO Eric Schmidt (liveblogged here, among other places), Schmidt mentioned in passing an event from last year that I’d missed entirely. Apparently, Google Earth and several other websites became so politically subversive in Bahrain that the government blocked them for a time.

It’s obvious why a government might block YouTube and opposition websites in order to shut down undesired political discussion, particularly before an election, but why Google Earth?

Turns out that the ruling elite in Bahrain have taken up to 80% of the land in the tiny country for their own use, leaving the Shiite majority (and others left out of the good life) crammed into the remaining 20%. But, the outsiders couldn’t see what was actually happening on behind the walls, only their bare surfaces. Google Earth images let political activists see the palaces, the swimming pools and the yachts that had been hidden from view, stirring up the masses in ways that some elements in the government found distasteful and probably dangerous. The result? Censorship — and an immediate jump in traffic to some of the banned sites.

Of course, people had immediately found ways around the content-blocking, for instance by circulating already-downloaded images via email or by using identity-blocking software. And, many of the restrictions seem to have been eased after parliamentary elections were over. But this incident gives a taste of the kind of unintended consequences that the free exchange of information can have. Next up, China? When people request information from Google that the Great Firewall has blocked (something that apparently only happens about once in every 10,000 searches), the site lets readers know what happened — probably making them all the more eager to find it one way or another. Information wants to be free, and so do a lot of people who consume it.


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