Overhead view stirs up Bahrain Despite a government attempt to block them, Google Earth images of estates belonging to the ruling family become the talk of the island nation. By William Wallis, Financial Times December 4, 2006

MANAMA, BAHRAIN — Since Bahrain's government blocked the Google Earth website this year over its intrusion into private homes and royal palaces, Googling their island kingdom has become a pastime for many Bahrainis.

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 Khalifa family to highlight the inequity of land distribution in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom.

A senior government official told the Financial Times that Google Earth had allowed the public to pry into private homes and ogle people's yachts and swimming pools. But he acknowledged that the government's three-day attempt to block the site had proved counterproductive.

It gave instant publicity to Google Earth and contributed to growing sophistication among Bahrainis in circumventing Web censorship.

It also provided more ammunition to democracy activists in advance of the recent parliamentary elections, the second since King Hamad ibn Isa Khalifa began introducing limited political change in 2001.

About 60% of Bahrain's population is Shiite, but the country is ruled by the Sunni Khalifa family. The elections took place against a backdrop of rising sectarian tension and demands from the Shiites for a greater share of wealth and power.

Opposition activists claim that 80% 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.

Mahmood Yousif, a businessman whose political chat and blog site Mahmood's Den is among Bahrain's most popular, says that in the tense run-up to the polls, few Bahrainis have not surfed over the contours of their kingdom, comparing vast royal palaces, marinas and golf courses with crowded Shiite villages nearby, where unemployment is rife and services meager.

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. Yousif, among others, initially encouraged Web users to post images on photo-sharing websites.

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 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 toward a more egalitarian society.

But loyalists find irreverent discussion of the royal family on the Web offensive and dangerous. Though some younger members of the royal family apparently saw the futility of blocking Google Earth and quickly reversed the move, others in government have waged a virtual battle with the nation's proliferating cyber-activists using technology as well as an arsenal of press censorship laws. As the election approached, at least 25 Bahraini sites deemed to be carrying subversive material were blocked.

Yousif believes most subscribers in Bahrain downloaded free software — partly thanks to technical advice on his site — and thus were able to mask their location and access censored sites. Echoing that, Najeel Rajab, the director of the banned Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said that since his organization's site was blocked three weeks ago, the number of visitors has tripled.

There are some in the government who are still living in the age of the telex, when you could very easily put controls on communications. But these Orwellian policing methods do not have a place in this modern age, Yousif said.