Home | News    Sunday 22 April 2007

Google Earth ban in Sudan is due to US export restrictions

By Stefan Geens, Ogle Earth (www.ogleearth.com)

April 21, 2007 (CAIRO) — Soon after Google added information about the crisis in Darfur to Google Earth two weeks ago, an aid worker in Sudan reported that it was no longer possible to download the program from Google’s servers. This was soon confirmed by other people living in Sudan — they all got the same message, "This product is not available in your country".

The speculation was that perhaps, just as in Bahrain last year, local authorities were blocking access to Google Earth. A query to Google has now solved the mystery. Sudan isn’t censoring anything. It is the United States that 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."

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 US 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. (I don’t think this law applies to non-Americans, though.)

We 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.

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 in Sudan, 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 atrocities being committed 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 (via 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 in Sudan — local aid workers and those Sudanese who want access to uncensored information about the mass upheavals 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 rule. Perhaps other authoritarian leaders can take note and also start clamoring for US export bans on Google Earth.

The team behind the Google Earth Darfur layers is now working on a version for Google Maps. These will be viewable in any web browser, and don’t require a download of Google Earth.

If you can’t wait, however, you can use Tor, a software tool for anonymizing your identity online. If you use it to access Google’s servers, the servers can’t tell you are downloading from Sudan, and thus let you download Google Earth.

The instructions for installing Tor look daunting at first glance, but they’re actually straightforward: Download and install Vidalia (http://vidalia-project.net/, make sure to download the version that has Tor included in it), then change your internet connection’s proxy server settings so that both HTTP and HTTPS traffic is directed to a local proxy server: IP address, port 8118. Using Tor does involve a speed penalty, but luckily only the download of the Google Earth application is being blocked in Sudan at the moment — access to the data servers is unfettered. In other words, once you have downloaded and installed Google Earth, you no longer need Tor to run it in Sudan.