Taiwan wants Google to censor satellite imagery

A recent story in the news says that Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has asked Google to blur imagery of some military structures on Itu Aba Island (also known as Taiping Island) in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is a hotly contested area with several countries, most notabley China, building structures on the reefs of the Spratleys. We had a look at the progress last year and had a look at the latest imagery of Fiery Cross Reef in June this year.

As we have discussed before, censoring satellite imagery is more difficult than censoring other data. A number of countries censor aerial data, mapping data and 3D imagery and because those are often gathered within the countries in question, Google must comply with local laws. But satellite imagery is more difficult to censor. I has been done. It is illegal in the US to publish high resolution imagery of Israel, and Google is a US company so Israel appears in relatively low resolution in Google Maps and Google Earth. Also, imagery updates were stopped for Iraq, Afghanistan, the Ukraine and Syria although we do not know exactly how that was accomplished.

Back to this particular case, if the story is correct and if that was the only facility that Taiwan asked Google to censor, then it would appear they made a serious error. The result has been that many news outlets have published the imagery and it is now not only practically impossible to get rid of all those images, but it has become an object of attention. In addition, Google will be very unlikely to agree to censor it unless legal pressure can be brought to bear. If they were to censor it, a lot of people will notice, and it will become another news story, and then a lot of other countries will want their censorship requests to be honoured as well.

Another question would be who Taiwan wishes to hide the imagery from. Even if Google removed the image, it could still be purchased from the supplier Digital Globe, or imagery of the location could be ordered from various other commercial suppliers. A number of states also have their own spy satellites and the countries most interested in the region could probably capture aerial imagery of it if they wished.

The image that Taiwan wants censored is dated July 8th, 2016 and can only be seen in the default layer as it has not yet (as of this writing) been put in historical imagery.

The military structure in question can be seen below:

We have also created an animation showing that the airport was built since 2006 and the harbour is also being expanded.


About Timothy Whitehead

Timothy has been using Google Earth since 2004 when it was still called Keyhole before it was renamed Google Earth in 2005 and has been a huge fan ever since. He is a programmer working for Red Wing Aerobatx and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.






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Comments

  1. Keep in mind that Satellite providers are the actual ones restricted from distributing imagery collection over sensitive areas such as Israel. Google is only buying what is available from those providers such as DigitalGlobe and Airbus. Basically you can’t go direct to the source to buy from DG either because they will turn you down; exceptions being the US Government. Areas such Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are heavily delayed or turned off in updates publicly probably to protect US Forces supporting initiatives in those areas.

    • Timothy Whitehead says:

      Presumably if there were a non-US supplier they could provide imagery of Israel but Google would still not be allowed to us it, at least in the US.

  2. “Google will be very unlikely to agree to censor it unless legal pressure can be brought to bear.”

    It would be very interesting to see what kind of “legal pressure” Taiwan can bring to bear though.

    On July 12, 2016, an UNLCOS Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that Itu Aba is not an island but a rock, incapable of sustaining human habitation on its own. As such, it is therefore a feature of the high seas, well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), being illegally occupied by Taiwan.

    If Taiwan has no legal basis for occupying Itu Aba, then what legal basis does Taiwan have to request censorship of aerial images of features sitting well within another country’s EEZ?

    As far as international law goes, no other country has sovereign rights to Itu Aba other than the Philippines. Only Taiwan’s’ vastly superior military and economy is preventing poor Filipinos from asserting sovereign rights over Itu Aba.

    If Google and other websites really want to avoid any legal pressure over this, then perhaps they should stop referring to Itu Aba as Itu Aba “Island” or Taiping “Island,” as referring to this rock as an island actually goes against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the July 12 UNCLOS Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal ruling.



PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.