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Ban at your own peril

Curbing services like Google Earth won’t work. In fact, it’ll be counterproductive.

india Updated: Feb 02, 2009 11:28 IST

Google Earth is again under attack by aliens from planet Ludd. A Public interest litigation filed before the Madras High Court has called for a ban on the online mapping service, citing its use by Pakistani terrorists in the Mumbai attack. While it’s amusing to think of Islamabad implementing a judgement by an Indian court, the case reminds one of the continuing debate on restricting information for the sake of national security. India has seen similar debates over BlackBerry communication devices and Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) telephony.

No one doubts certain information curbs are necessary in an age of messianic terror. The issue is the extent of the trade-off between security and freedom. The evidence indicates that a light touch is needed: most attempts to curb information either fail or are counterproductive. First, most information technologies are impervious to bans. Google Earth, for example, has been mimicked by dozens of other websites, agencies and firms. The Indian Space Research Organisation is working on Bhuvan, an online map system 10 times more precise than Google Earth. Second, information bans can impose burdens on societies that may exceed the costs of terrorism. The Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations has recently shown a strong correlation between the prosperity of Indian states and their teledensity. This makes sense: the freer information flows, the better economies function and the wealthier people become. This is true even in law and order. Kochi found BlackBerries perfect for traffic policing even as the home ministry talked of banning them.

Finally, bans often serve to hide the failures of government agencies. New Delhi restricts VoIP telephony and BlackBerries because its intelligence agencies do not know how to intercept messages in these media. Foreign intelligence agencies cracked both long ago and are now focused on new frontier areas like cloud computing. The suspicion is that banning only feeds official complacency and leads the authorities to fall further behind the technology loop. Ultimately, driving information technology underground is unbecoming of a liberal democracy, even one under siege. Not even Israel bans Google Earth or BlackBerries. As the head of Google Earth pointed out, countries that seek to ban his service are ones “where government is used to controlling everything”.