Paris, 04 July 2006 – Millions of French Internet users are zooming in on aerial views of their holiday houses with a new state web service, but not Jacques Chirac. The Château de Bity, a country home in the Corrèze that the President rarely visits, is blanked out, along with the surrounding village.
Dozens of large blanks fleck the landscape of France on Geoportail, the state-financed bird’s-eye view of France that Chirac opened with a mouse-click 10 days ago as a French alternative to Google Earth. The white zones, totalling hundreds of square kilometres, cover a secret list of sites that the state deems sensitive under a 1973 law that bans their photography.
These include the harbours of Toulon and Brest, as well as power stations, government buildings and certain factories. So many no-look zones litter western Brittany, with the Brest naval base, aerodromes and other sites, that French bloggers have renamed it “Emmenthal country”, after the cheese with holes. Yet all are visible on Google’s satellite views. Some, such as Toulon and the Avord air force base, have the high resolution that Geoportail offers for the rest of France.
“French law requires us to hide sensitive sites for national defence,” Bertrand Lévy, the director of the National Geographical Institute, which runs the site, said. “We have just been authorised to blur these zones rather than hide them, which is better. Obviously, one can wonder about the point of blurring zones if they appear on other sites but we are a public service and have to obey the law.”
At the request of the US Government, Google blurs detail on a few American locations, including the residence of Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, but not the White House. India, Israel and other states have also put pressure on Google to hide sites that could be valuable to enemies or terrorists, but nowhere have so many zones simply been blanked out as on Geoportail’s France.
The site, www.geoportail.fr, has been a runaway success, with its base of 400,000 aerial photographs covering the non-sensitive parts of the country, showing everything down to the size of a manhole cover. France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific are also included.
The French site, which is free, offers a detailed ordnance survey map that overlays the aerial shots. It is adding a 3D “fly-over” feature in the autumn, and will soon offer dense cover of state facilities, such as schools, tax-offices, town halls and unemployment benefit centres. The idea is that Geoportail observes the Gallic tradition of equality of public service, meaning that villages are supposed to be as well taken care of as big towns.