Last Friday Media Backspin, the weblog of HonestReporting.com, reported that Google Earth had removed a notation which falsely claimed that the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Yam was built on the ruins of Ghawarina, an Arab town which supposedly has been destroyed during Israel's 1948-49 War of Independence. Google, which researched the notation made by Dr. Thameen Darby, a Palestinian physician living in Jenin, used maps dating back to 1880 to justify the change. A new notation on Google Earth reads:
The 1880 Palestine Exploration Fund map designates a region by this name east of Acre. This area is populated with Israeli Arabs. The map does not have any towns here.
Translation: Ghawarina was someplace else and Arabs still live there today.
At first glance it looks like Google corrected an error and all is well. Sadly, it took two years and a libel suit by Kiryat Yam to get the error corrected. An Associated Press report on February 11 about the complaint quoted Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi of Haifa University:
That's simply complete nonsense. Kiryat Yam was built on sand dunes, and there wasn't any Palestinian village in the area. The lands were bought in 1939 by the Gav Yam construction company.
This isn't an isolated case. On June 26 Andre Oboler of the Jerusalem Center For Public Affaris published a report titled Google Earth: A New Platform for Anti-Israel Propaganda and Replacement Geography. In the report Dr. Obeler states, in part:
...sites known to be ruins in 1946 are claimed to be villages destroyed in 1948. Arab villages which still exist today are listed as sites of destruction. The Google Earth initiative is not only creating a virtual Palestine, it is creating a falsification of history.
The inclusion of virtual Palestine, superimposed on Israel in the core layer of Google Earth, is an example of replacement geography advanced by technology. Those wishing to find directions, explore the cities of Israel, or randomly wander across this small piece of land are immediately taken to a politically motivated narrative unrelated to their quest.
What makes Obeler's report compelling is not the fact that users have altered history and geography to suit their political purpose. Rather, it is that Israel, unlike other nations, has had this information included into the default display.
"Generally, Google allows all kinds of organizations or individuals to create overlays with their own information on its map. These overlays are only available to those who specifically request them, but they are not automatically incorporated into the core map of Google Earth that every user entering its website can see. Disturbingly, Google has incorporated the Palestinians' overlays and their accompanying narrative into its core maps of Israel. As Google maintains editorial control over its core layer, it has responsibility for its content, which it clearly has not adequately exercised."
The crux of the issue is Obeler's charge that Google made a deliberate decision to place pro-Israeli content in one user layer which is not displayed by default and pro-Palestinian content in another user layer that is displayed by default overlaying the core layer. Obeler is charging that Google, the company, has made a deliberate and conscious decision to use Google Earth to promote a specific political agenda. This charge of explicit bias by Google can be substantiated today even after the Kiryat Yam correction.
A July 1st Jerusalem Post report actually claims that anti-Israel posting on Google Earth increased in the wake of Obeler's report.
Google's overall response has been less than helpful. From the Jerusalem Post article:
Google spokesperson Jessica Powell said on Tuesday that Google has no plans to restrict the application's content, despite claims that Israel is being uniquely and malevolently targeted.
"This layer reflects what people contribute, not what Google believes to be true [...] While we recognize that some may find the user-generated content objectionable, we are careful to balance the integrity of an open forum with the legal requirements of local governments," Powell said. "
Obeler, who was interviewed for the Jerusalem Post article, challenged Powell's assertions:
The orange dots posted by Darby can be immediately found on the map, while other pro-Israel and corrected postings have to be downloaded separately. A user has to actively seek for another perspective on the map.
The core layer is what people get when they download and install Google Earth. It is there by default. The problem we have here is that the core layer is being used to promote propaganda, and this is being done openly and without penalty. If we treat Google Earth as the primary geographic information tool in the world, having such propaganda included becomes a problem.
On July 15 the Zionist Organization of America sent a letter to Google executives asking for changes. ZOA President Morton Klein added:
Google markets Google Earth as a reliable resource and teaching tool. It even publishes a Web site for teachers to use in the classroom. The company can't have it both ways. It can't benefit from a reputation as a credible source of information and yet take a hands-off approach when users post information on the map of Israel that is false and hateful. Google exercises editorial control over some of the content on Google Earth, but not when it comes to anti-Israel falsehoods.
The claim of anti-Israel bias at Google also stretches beyond Google Earth. For years right wing and pro-Israel websites and bloggers have claimed that Google News showed the same bias in their editorial selections. HonestReporting.com took Google News to task on the issue back in 2004.
For those of you who share Google's political perspective I ask you to imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. What if the West Bank was shown on Google Eath only as Yehuda and Shomron (Hebrew for Judea and Samaria), as integral to Israel, and covered with orange dots which only refer to the Palestinian people as terrorists while describing the area as solely Jewish in history? Would the Palestinians and their supporters be up in arms? Of course they would and rightfully so. Google Earth should only show factual information with user commentary available on demand, not one sided commentary shown by default without fact checking.
There is a wider issue for all of Google's hundreds of millions of users. Google has built a reputation and a successful business based on trust. Google users trust that when they do a search, look at Google Earth, or use any of Google's other services that accurate data is being provided to them. I have no evidence that Google's search engine, for example, is in any way tainted by politics Despite that I find myself double checking the results Google provides with new search engines like Cuil and Mooter and even the venerable Alta Vista. Google has already lost the trust of many Israeli, Jewish, and pro-Israel users. What happens to Google's business if this lack of trust spreads to the wider user community as they become aware of the charges of political bias?
Google is best served by insuring the trust of their user community regardless of politics. Using Google Earth or Google News as a platform for political advocacy is destructive to their business.
Obeler and Klein made a reasonable suggestion which would restore trust while allowing Palestinian users and their supporters largely uncensored access. They propose that Google treat the Virtual Palestine user layer exactly the same way they treat other user layers. Don't display the information by default overlaying the core layer. Make it available for download by request. Google also has a responsibility to investigate complaints about false and malicious content as they did in the Kiryat Yam case. Google's actions last Friday are a model for what needs to be done. It just shouldn't take a lawsuit for them to act.