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February 21, 2007


Elizabeth Audrey

I almost always give priority to individual rights and liberties over government interests. However, in this particular instance involving Iraqi insurgents’ use of Google Earth for planning attacks, it seems clear to me that security concerns far outweigh any First Amendment rights. From as early as Schenck v. U.S. in 1919 – the very first Supreme Court case officially addressing First Amendment concerns – the Court famously asserted that “[w]hen a nation is at war many things that might be said in a time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.” In other words, greater restrictions on free speech are permissible during wartime. The Court’s statement resonates with our current situation. Today we find ourselves in a time of war, and thousands of coalition troops have lost their lives since the beginning of our involvement in Iraq in 2003.

According to Cindy’s post, Google has been criticized for its “willingness to change and blur out their dataset to cater to special interests” – but I disagree with Google’s critics and would strongly argue that national security during wartime should never be considered a special interest. Google should not be criticized for attempting to protect lives and safeguard security efforts in Iraq, which are ultimately of much greater importance than web users’ ability to explore, in a virtual sense, every inch of the globe. Although it may be *slightly* curtailing First Amendment rights, we must keep in mind that Google may be serving a greater public interest by blurring its dataset, and thereby choosing the lesser of two evils.

Even if subjected to strict scrutiny, the need to blank out military bases on Google Earth would pass this legal test. The government certainly has a compelling state interest in protecting the lives of those people fighting on its behalf. Furthermore, this action is narrowly tailored to serve the government’s purpose. The intention of such an action is not to blur or obscure any more than is necessary to protect the safety of the soldiers on these bases. After all, military bases are never shown on printed U.S. maps, and this is a completely accepted practice that should simply be applied to Google Earth. (The printed U.S. maps are also under copyright, like the maps on Google Earth, so I don’t see the copyright concern being any different than it is in the former case.)

Under the law, it is illegal to print a list of the names and addresses of CIA agents, so why wouldn’t it also be illegal to distribute the location and layout of coalition military bases via the Internet? In Near v. Minnesota (1931), Chief Justice Hughes stated in the opinion of the Court, “No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to its recruiting service or the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops.” Wouldn’t this situation with Google Earth constitute disclosing the location of troops?

Whether we are talking about Google’s right to expression, or the public’s right of access to information, I still hold that when human lives are in the balance, First Amendment concerns must take a back seat. Referring once again to the language used in Schenck v. U.S., there is no question that this form of expression creates a “clear and present danger” that will bring about the “substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” The availability of aerial views and the user’s ability to pinpoint weakly protected areas, such as tents, poses an indisputable threat of physical harm to the inhabitants of these military bases. When we put soldiers in harm’s way, the least we can do is to not aid and abet insurgent attacks by providing the technological tools.

Andrea Manka

This is one of those cases where the values of a society have to be balanced against each other to form a solution. No one could credibly and cogently argue that looking at buildings on Google Earth is more important than protecting sensitive sites from terrorism and attack.

Personally, I rub against the instinct that Google Earth fosters a feeling that it is "okay" to invade the privacy of others. Though Google might have the right to post satellite pictures, I can't help but feel that having people look at aerial views of my house violates my rights.

Just because a technology is available doesn't mean we should use it. Though this goes against my usual intincts about First Amendment issues, I think that Google Earth is dangerous enough to be censored to a large degree. In short, not only should governments be able to obscure sensitive sites, but I should be able to write a letter to Google and tell them to stop broadcasting satellite pictures of my domicile over the internet as well.


To paraphrase a quote that is frequently attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “a people who are willing to trade their freedom for security are not free or secure, and deserve neither.” What I think we have to keep in mind is that with every technological advance comes some potential for abuse. To restrict the advance, as opposed to targeting and fighting the abuse, is to burden creativity and stifle potential achievements. Additionally, we must realize that there is no logical end for the attempted restrictions. If we begin with modifying Google Earth, what is to stop us from restricting Google entirely? Or, once we have purged Google of all potentially controversial applications, why would we not begin limiting people’s use of the internet as a whole as a means to regulate and terminate potentially bothersome ideas? The slippery slope towards censorship and governmental tyranny may begin with something as seemingly innocuous as artificially editing online maps. . .


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