Google Earth Boosts Social Activism in Bahrain

A student (thanks, Gui!) pointed me to this Financial Times story about how Google Earth is fueling the push towards a more egalitarian society now that poorer citizens can spy on the massive and extravagant properties of the wealthier class:

The site allows internet users to view satellite images of the world in varying degrees of detail. When Google updated its images of Bahrain to higher definition, cyber-activists seized on the view it gave of estates and private islands belonging to the ruling al-Khalifa family to highlight the inequity of land distribution in the tiny Gulf kingdom.

…activists claim that 80 per cent of the island has been carved up between royals and other private landlords, while much of the rest of the population faces an acute housing shortage.

…“Some of the palaces take up more space than three or four villages nearby and block access to the sea for fishermen. People knew this already. But they never saw it. All they saw were the surrounding walls,” said Mr Yousif, who is seen in Bahrain as the grandfather of its blogging community.

He and other activists believe creative use of the internet – connectivity in Bahrain is among the highest in the Arab world – is forcing the country to confront awkward realities and will speed the march towards a more egalitarian society.

In reaction, the ruling Bahrainian government has attempted to block access to Google Earth, but activists (as they usually do) have found a work-around:

…most subscribers in Bah­rain have downloaded free software – partly thanks to technical advice on his own site – enabling them to mask their location and access censored sites. Echoing that, Najeel Rajab, the director of the banned Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, says since his organisation’s site was blocked two weeks ago the number of visitors has trebled.

And even those with slower connections have found ways to participate:

For those with insufficient bandwidth to access Google Earth, a PDF file with dozens of downloaded images of royal estates has been circulated anonymously by e-mail. Mr Yousif, among others, initially encouraged web users to post images on photo-sharing websites.

More at Boing Boing and Ogle Earth.

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