It’s been a year since a user-created placemark on Google Earth Community generated controversy for alleged bias by Google in matters Israel/Palestine, so I guess it is time to repeat history.
A quick reminder of what came before: In August 2006, somebody identifying himself as Simon David uploaded a georeferenced list of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with commentary, to Google Earth Community. In January 2007, the content, part of the default Google Earth Community layer (and which can be turned on in the Layers pane) led to a stroppy article on TotallyJewish.com that accused Google of anti-Israel bias for allowing commentary it did not like to be visible on Google Earth. It was a silly accusation, and the reasons why were explained on Ogle Earth then. (The response was a defence of free speech: If you encounter speech you don’t like, you should add speech you do like rather than attempt to squash it.)
What’s the current media frenzy about? Again, we have a layer uploaded to Google Earth Community ages ago (in December 2006); it purports to show Arab villages in Israel that were ethnically cleansed as a result of the war between Israel and several Arab countries soon after Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948. The uploader is Thameen Darby, who runs the website Palestine Remembered, which seeks to document what Palestinians call Nakba, “the catastrophe”. Darby makes no secret of his views and allegiance to the Palestinian cause.
What’s new this time? Israel on Blog was the first to hit my radar screen with the story, and sums it up well: City officials in Kiryat Yam, a small Israeli town north of Haifa, are suing Google for slander because a marker in Thameen Darby’s collection places the town of Arab Ghawarina — which Darby alleges was evacuated and destroyed in 1948 — at the location of present-day Kiryat Yam. The Associated Press quotes an Israeli historian supporting Kiryat Yam’s claim that there was no prior Arab settlement there.
“That’s simply complete nonsense,” Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi of Haifa University told Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. “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.”
The AP article also quotes Thameen Darby:
“As far as I can know, the Arab Ghawarina locality was in the place depicted,” Darby told The Associated Press. He noted that he may have not marked the exact location and if proven wrong “by reliable sources, I will be quick to reallocate it.”
Darby’s Internet Web site pinpoints Ghawarina on the site of Kiryat Yam, but another places it south of Haifa at the site of a present-day Arab town, Jisr el-Zarka.
This reporting raises some interesting questions. Did the town of Kiryat Yam make a good-faith effort to reach Darby to correct the location before deciding to sue Google, or is the town making a point of holding Google responsible for the content? Surely the historical location of a town is an easy matter for historians to be in agreement of, even in this region? If so, this whole tempest in a teacup could presumably be resolved quite easily.
Is any of this Google’s responsibility? It’s not the first time that user-generated content has caused a government actor to get cross with Google. In 2006, a user posted the “secret” locations of Norwegian fighter jets to the Google Earth Community, prompting an army spokesman to threaten legal activity, though nothing came of it.
Google’s response to this latest geofracas, after NetworkWorld asked, is:
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. It looks as though this particular user-contributed annotation does not breach our Terms and Conditions nor is it in any way illegal.
The Google Earth community layer is a place where people can tag their knowledge or opinions of a location. Their comments are clearly indicated with the ‘I’ icon and this layer can easily be switched on and off.
We believe the majority of people use the community positively to share their expertise and experiences. In most cases, our users increase the utility of the product and provide a more meaningful and robust experience for each other with their contributions to the Google Earth community.
Reading between the lines, it appears that Google is willing to take a measure of legal responsibility for the contents of the Google Earth Community, but that it sees no evidence in this case that Thameen Darby’s possible mis-placement of the town Arab Ghawarina was intentional. In most democracies, a falsehood has to be intentional for accusations of slander to hold up in court. If this reading is correct, then Darby would have to change the location if it turns out he was wrong, or else Kiryat Yam could have a case in Israeli courts of law against Google, the publisher ultimately responsible for the layer.
This is the problem with a big multinational running a community site such as Google Earth Community or YouTube, as opposed to just individuals posting to the commons that is the web. Governments and legal systems can and do make demands that web content they disapprove of be removed; but if I post something to my server in the US, I can ignore what Turkey or Thailand thinks of my views. If the publisher is Google, however, Google’s local business interests are assets that are liable to be targeted. Such tactics have already worked with YouTube: See Turkey and Thailand. There is nothing that keeps an Israeli court from collecting damages from Google in Israel if it decides that Google Earth Community violates Israeli law. What’s Google going to do, withdraw from Israel altogether? Unlikely.
Does this mean that Google will police Google Earth Community in the future? That sounds unworkable. Instead, I’m guessing that such conflicts will be resolved in an ad hoc manner, depending on how much media upheaval is generated and whether there are concrete legal challenges that Google can’t ignore.
Once again we are reminded of the importance people attach to the “public space” that is Google Earth, regarding it as a kind of de facto reference atlas for the world.
(See also Lies, damned lies, and Jerusalem’s borders)