Q&A: California lawmaker wants to blur Google Earth

California Assemblyman Joel Anderson explains why he's behind a move to force online map companies to limit the level of detail around certain types of locations and structures.

OK, it's California. So we are quite used to the rest of the country rolling their eyes in knowing exasperation at our fads. But often, they turn out to be harbingers of national trends. And so the question: Will AB-255 number among them as well?

California Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon)

Last month California Assemblyman, Joel Anderson, introduced a bill to limit the amount of detail someone could see on screen using online mapping tools. It also calls for fines of up to $250,000 per day for violating what Anderson describes "as the same level of protections that foreign governments extend to their own citizens."

Considering the strength of California's high-tech industry, he may be tilting at windmills. However, this isn't the first time that Anderson, a Republican from the San Diego area, has courted controversy. In 2007, he pushed through a state bill that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed, requiring the state's huge pension funds to stop investing in companies that do business with Iran.

Here are the clauses from AB-255 sure to raise hackles in Silicon Valley:

"(a)An operator of a commercial Internet Web site or online service that makes a virtual globe browser available to members of the public shall not provide aerial or satellite photographs or imagery of a building or facility in this state that is identified on the Internet Web site by the operator as a school or place of worship, or a government or medical building or facility, unless those photographs or images have been blurred.

"(b)An operator of a commercial Internet Web site or online service that makes a virtual globe browser available to members of the public shall not provide street view photographs or images of the buildings and facilities described in subdivision (a)."

Anderson argues that he's part of a larger global trend where interests of state are being pressed by domestic politicians worried about the security implications of online mapping. The latest instance came on Tuesday, when the minister of State for Home in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Naseem Khan, said that he wants to stop Google Earth from showing sensitive locations because of terrorism concerns. "We want Google Earth censored," he said. "We shall submit a proposal to the center and other concerned agencies to implement it as soon as possible."

Anderson, who says he is asking only what India and some other foreign governments are demanding for their citizens. I spoke with Anderson late Tuesday to find out why he was so keen to promote the bill.

Question: When is the bill expected to go into committee?
Anderson: I'm thinking that it will be in committee within a week. That's not official. Right now, everything is fluid. The majority party sets the pace but we were told to expect it to happen about a week from now.

Q: Your bill would ban online providers from showing detailed satellite images of schools, places of worship, government buildings, and medical facilities, unless they were first blurred out. How did you arrive at that list?
Anderson: Well, I looked at where we've had security issues in the past and potentially, might have issues in the future. Churches and synagogues have been bombed. So have federal buildings and then, of course, 9/11. So, the threats are out there and as a state legislator, public safety is my No. 1 job. To ignore that fact would be irresponsible.

Q: Still, the wording of the proposed bill is not going to go down well with a lot of people.
Anderson: The bill is fraught with undefined items and it has to be honed down and clarified. What you're looking at is not the finished product. But the concept of the bill will remain. After the Mumbai attacks, the Indian government found that the lone surviving terrorist used Google's online maps and the level of detail it offered made them effective. What's interesting is that what they're doing in India now is exactly what I'm suggesting we do. If you go throughout the world, many countries are trying to shut down Google mapping--it's not just Google. My bill would address all online mapping.

Q: Isn't the real threat here the motivation of people who look to commit heinous acts, rather than the technology they use?
Anderson: I'm not against the technology; it's fantastic. But we're in an evolving world and we have to change our course as it changes. I'm all for online mapping, but knowing where the air ducts are in an air shaft is not necessary for me to navigate in the city. Who wants to know that level of detail? Bad people do.

Q: But could not a terrorist just as easily plan out their attacks by using a map of a city like Mumbai? They don't need to go up online to locate their targets.
Anderson: The level of detail is not on the maps. With a map, you cant count the number of bricks in a building, or see the elevator shafts. With this level of detail (afforded by online maps,) you can. I hear the argument that, "Yeah, I want to also ban cars because cars are used in robberies." Look, cars have other commercial uses. There are no other uses for knowing on a map where there are air shafts. These are all red herring arguments. The fact is that I would be remiss in my job if I didn't take this seriously. I'm not interested in censoring Google or the others, but now that we know there's a threat, how could we not address this?

Q: But that's where it becomes more complicated. A colleague here at CNET pointed out that the way the bill is worded, government agencies that use Google Earth, for instance, to help the public find their buildings could conceivably be in violation as well.
Anderson: The wording of the law would change. But companies would still back off the level of detail. The only concern people have had that's been put to me is whether they'll still be able to use the online maps and my answer is that, absolutely, they will. I'm not against technology.

Q: Do you believe you have the votes to pass your proposal?
Anderson: I'm working on that. And I believe that other people from other states will follow suit and do something similar.

Q: If AB-255 does pass, why do you believe it would stand up to a court challenge?
Anderson: That's their option. They can take it to court. But since when do you have a First Amendment right to yell fire? This falls under the same category.

Q: So have you been in touch with software companies to talk about your bill?
Anderson: Microsoft spent two hours with me last week. I want to hone it down and work out something that works for them as well as for me. I also spoke with the lobbyist from Google. My door is open. I do want to work with them in good faith. The bill will be cleaned up and I have a pretty good idea of where it should go, but as we got through the vetting process, I'm open to what my colleagues have to say or what Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Mapquest have to say. But the concept of the bill will stay intact. This is the trend that's going around the world. let's not wait until an American has to die in order to do the right thing.

 

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