TOULOUSE, France — Google Earth, the popular Web-based geographic information system, has never received a protest from any government concerned about unwanted disclosures of sensitive military installations or any other subject, according to one of the system’s founders.
Michael T. Jones, chief technologist for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Earth, said that while government officials in some nations have apparently made widely publicized statements expressing displeasure with the global, free-access service, none has ever contacted Google or the U.S. government to complain about it.
“If a government had a real problem with us, they would contact us directly, or contact the U.S. embassy in their country, they wouldn’t limit their actions to statements to the local press,” Jones said here Nov. 8 during the Spot Image International Conference on Earth observation systems.
India is one of the nations in which government officials have been quoted expressing concerns about Google Earth. Jones said that about a month ago, representatives of the Indian government wrote Google a letter asking to discuss the system.
Jones said the letter was not a protest, just a request for information. Google Earth representatives, including Jones, flew to New Delhi to outline what Google Earth does during what he described as “constructive, mutually beneficial discussions.”
Jones said Google Earth, which purchases satellite imagery from multiple satellite operators, is almost certain to be a buyer of imagery from India’s Cartosat-2 high-resolution optical satellite, scheduled for launch late this year or early in 2007.
“International law is pretty clear about pictures from space,” Jones said, referring to the fact that space-based systems escape the territorial-infringement rules that affect aircraft up to certain altitudes. “But the fact is that we do not want to upset people. We are always willing to discuss what we do with any government with questions.”
Jones conceded that Google Earth’s explosion on the scene — providing worldwide, free access to often high-resolution imagery of just about any place on the globe — was a shock for some governments, even if such pictures have been available for years.
“It creates an emotional response, and people want to control it,” Jones said. “And it’s obvious that the response from France or Italy will be different from the response in North Korea or China. I’ll leave it at that.”
Google Earth and its affiliated Google Earth Professional have had an impact beyond governments concerned about exposure of secret installations to anyone with an Internet connection.
Herve Buchwalter, chief executive of Spot Image, the Toulouse-based company that commercializes satellite imagery, said government ministries around the world that are regular Spot Image customers have begun to ask that Spot Image’s products be assembled in a Google Earth format.
Companies like Spot Image voiced mixed reactions to the appearance of Google Earth, fearing that like other Web-enabled products offered free of charge, it would devalue satellite imagery.
But Google Earth, which was one of the sponsors of the meeting here, has since calmed many of the fears of commercial satellite imagery companies, in part because it is a buyer of imagery and has helped stimulate a global appetite for geographic information.
Jones also stressed that Google Earth, like Apple’s iTunes Web-based music library, is a one-way service.
“You can put things into Google Earth, but you can’t take anything out,” Jones said. “We never let any pixels out of our system. We protect intellectual property and we make sure that users cannot take [imagery] out in its original form. It’s like recording a film, but not getting the original master tapes from the production company.”