— Ainara (@afraileromero) August 8, 2016
Users view Google Maps more than a billion times each week: It’s one of the world’s largest sources of geographic data and the first place many of us turn when we need to locate something.
So it makes sense that, when a Gaza City-based journalism group claimed that the nation of Palestine had literally been wiped from Google’s maps, readers were, well — indignant. Dozens of Middle-Eastern news outlets have covered the “backlash,” and tens of thousands have Facebook-shared and tweeted it.
“The Forum of Palestinian Journalists condemns the crime carried out by Google in deleting the name of Palestine, and calls for Google to rescind its decision and apologize to the Palestinian people,” reads part of the statement from the Forum of Palestinian Journalists, posted to its website Aug. 3. “… The move is designed to falsify history, geography as well as the Palestinian people’s right to their homeland, and [is] a failed attempt to tamper with the memory of Palestinians and Arabs as well as the world.”
The only problem? Google Maps didn’t delete Palestine on July 25, as claimed. It hasn’t changed its labeling of the region at all.
If you search “Palestine” in Google Maps today, you’ll get the same result you would have gotten five months ago, when a guy named Zak Martin began a Change.org petition on the subject: The map view defaults to a demarcated, but unlabeled, region stretching from Hebron in the south to Jenin in the north, and from Jerusalem to the Jordanian border.
If you click on any of the cities in this region, Google does label them as Palestinian, and the Wikipedia-sourced Knowledge Box that pops up describes Palestine as a “de jure sovereign state.” That language has been in effect since 2013, when Google — following the lead of the United Nations — changed its designation to “Palestine” from “Palestinian territories.”
Still, even if the current outrage is misplaced — and people are outraged, check out #palestineishere — it does raise some interesting questions about the power of mapping technologies like Google’s. In their attempts to dispassionately document the physical world online, tech companies often end up shaping our understanding of it, too. That’s not something that we tend to think about often, but it does become pretty obvious when a map changes/is said to have changed, or when we compare different maps against each other.
Some Palestinians have said, for instance, that they’re switching to Microsoft’s Bing Maps, because those do label Palestine as its own discrete place. Apple Maps, meanwhile, neither labels the territory nor differentiates it at all from the Israeli state.
This isn’t the only disputed region that Google has had to contend with. In May, I wrote about some of the discrepancies in the search engine’s Knowledge Boxes, where Taiwan is described as an independent country, and Ireland’s fourth-largest city is referred to by its nationalist name. Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israel and Palestine, is listed as Israel’s capital alone. And Crimea, which is likewise claimed by both Russia and the Ukraine, is mapped differently depending on which country you’re searching from.
The interpretations these platforms make go well beyond their labels, too. In June, Justin O’Beirne — the former head of cartography for Apple Maps — published an exhaustive comparison between the design and cartography of Apple and Google Maps. Among other things, O’Beirne observed numerous, major differences in the way Apple and Google label places, and what they choose to label by default: the former prioritizing landmarks, like Madison Square Park or the Empire State Building; the latter focusing on transit options, like subways and bus stops.
In other words, if I’m in Manhattan and checking directions on my phone — something most of us probably do in new places — I’ll have subtly different impressions of the city, based on nothing more than my map application.
“The maps are more different than they appear at first glance,” O’Beirne concludes. “And each map shows a surprisingly different view of the world.”
For users, that means it’s really important to think about our maps critically — to remember that even Google and Apple, which appear so removed and authoritative, bring their own interpretations to these important questions. The outraged hashtaggers of #PalestineIsHere and #BoycottGoogle may have pegged their critiques to a nonevent — but at least they’ve learned that lesson.
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