Google Earth != Google Earth Community. Get over it.

Some of the most useful layers to me are the Google Earth Community Forums layers. If I’m zoomed in close and want to identify a feature, most likely a GEC member will already have annotated it. I don’t expect this information to be unbiased — I can make up my own mind, thank you very much, often from disparate sources at the same location. It’s from this cacophony of opinions that I expect to gain a nuanced perspective. I also watch Fox News and Al Jazeera, and I can highly recommend the resulting world view.

This is why a new article on, Google Anti-Israel Probe by Marc Shoffman, is so disappointing:

Google has launched an enquiry into its interactive atlas program Google Earth after a TJ investigation revealed the online mapping and navigation service is replete with anti-Israel propaganda.

Google Earth, which claims to provide “local facts” and “critical tools for understanding a story” about the world, also contains factually incorrect data and biased images relating to Israel and the Middle East.

One Israeli settlement is displayed alongside comments implying citizens are stealing water from neighbouring Palestinians, while other images purport to show copies of land confiscation orders as well as plans to extend the security fence into Bethlehem.

For a story that purports to uncover bias, it isn’t quite practicing what it preaches. The story makes it sound like Google acknowledges there is “anti-Israel propaganda” being posted to Google Earth via the forums, and is looking into what it can do to remedy the situation. We are told a Google spokesperson “promised that the company would investigate the offending postings.” That doesn’t sound like an “Anti-Israel probe” to me. More like a moderator double-checking his or her forum to see if anybody overstepped the bounds of civil discourse.

In any case, the evidence provided by TJ is rather meek. Let’s get specific: Several of the placemarks TJ refers to are from this posting in GEC documenting all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In this one the poster writes “Note the well tended lawns in a region deprived of water”, and in this one the poster adds an image: “The land confiscation orders below seize the majority of the village land…” That’s verging on polite, certainly by the combative standards of discourse in Israeli media. Furthermore, criticizing Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is not anti-Israel. I do it, as do Jewish and Israeli friends I have, and I’m not anti-Israel.

Elsewhere, visitors to Google Earth who click on the settlement of Kibbutz Revivim are shown an image of a wrecked C-47 plane. And just outside Jerusalem, a computer generated image, believed to have been taken from a computer game, claims to depict an Israeli missile factory.

Here’s the link to the C-47. It’s part of a comprehensive listing of all classic planes found in Google Earth now maintained by Valery Hronusov. That plane is offensive how exactly? I couldn’t find the purported missile factory. It sure would help if TJ provided links, so we can judge for ourselves.

Later on, we get this great quote:

Professor Eric Moonman, President of the Zionist Federation, said: “It’s outrageous that an information centre and device like Google should be infiltrated like this.

“What it does mean is that we are mixing up an information centre with prejudice and potentially the views of nutters.”

Oh my God! It’s just like the internet! And that’s an illuminating analogy — Google Earth is on its way to becoming a geobrowser, letting you surf a geospatial web populated with content referenced by place, from every conceivable source. But the geoweb i still in its infancy — in its bulletin board days, in fact, which is what the Google Earth Community is.

The downside to a bulletin board? Google doesn’t host the web that it indexes, but it does host that instance of the geoweb known as the Google Earth Community. And this has already created plenty of friction, mostly with governments unhappy at the manner in which Google Earth Community members are annotating state “secrets” with merry abandon. This ultimate responsibility is a potential Achilles heel for Google, as discussed on Ogle Earth before, because Google’s international business interests could be held hostage locally by governments.

To his credit, Shoffman knows what the proper solution to his complaint is: Appending speech you do like to speech you don’t like by adding your own placemarks. That is the principled stance to take in an open society that values its free speech… Astroturfing, not so much:

But revelations that it is also being used to freely promote anti-Israel views has alarmed the Jewish community and led to a rallying call for people to post positive and fair images about the country.

Alarm, ay? I’ve found exactly three posts in response to Shoffman’s articles on the blogosphere: At the Town Crier, Orthomom, and DovBear. DovBear and Orthomom’s commenters all essentially make the same points as in this article: More speech, not less.

6 thoughts on “Google Earth != Google Earth Community. Get over it.”

  1. are we confined 2 only a small rate of rendering or can we go deeply inside a location in Google Earth?

  2. Hi

    very nice article and deep thoughts about Google earth. I have been using GE for like a year now and I added lots of place marks there. I have noticed few biased place marks, but the vast majority of place marks are neutral. I also noted that when there is bias it comes from both sides, the Israeli and Palestinians.

    Reading the Israeli criticism about GE on the net I have felt that the root of this criticism is having a one-sided version of truth and the need to impose it on others. For example, their has a been a recent article in about this issue. Its main piont was the inclusion of the Temple Mount inside the Occupied Territories. But this is not bias. Because GE has decided to adhere to the UN boarders. and Jerusalem in the eyes of the UN is an occupied land. Now some Israelis feel this is not fair. But I guess adhering to the UN guidelines is the closest thing to neutrality we can get.

    Some of my place marks at GE were removed because the moderators there thought they were pro-palestinian. A thing in later found was reasonable. What I mean to say is that those guys are working hard to be as neutral as possible.

    Thanks again for ur article and hope it adds to the variability and richness of GE content.

    Thameen Darby

  3. Criticism of West Bank settlements is absurd, because Israel has legitimate sovereign right to the entire area. Saying they shouldn’t live there is like saying Americans shouldn’t live in Wyoming for some arbitrary reason. It is sad that portions of the Arab population choose to self-segregate by launching violent attacks against Jews, rather than just trying to live and let live. But that does not affect the truth.

  4. Wow!

    A friend told me that my little Google Earth project had aroused a bit of comment, but I didnt really believe it so I decided to search some blogs.

    Thankyou for your fair and balanced review.

    My post was deliberately limited – there was much more stuff I could have put in there, but frankly I’m not Amnesty International.

    As a general point the links are to photos I have either taken myself or are from verified sources.

    The Israeli military orders are definitely real – a couple were sent to me personally by people in Bethlehem who have had their land seized. I have seen it first hand.

    The articles linked to are mainly from BtSelem (a Jewish Israeli human rights organisation), the BBC, or the relevant UN resolutions as per Wikipedia. Hardly the “Protocols of Zion”.

    FYI the moderators at Google Earth congratulated me on my “excellent post” and listed it in “best of google earth community” section.

    I dont want to get into a full blown political debate, especially with people who clearly have never visited the region, but a few basic points :

    – Israel has never claimed sovereignty over the West Bank. The position under Israeli law is that the West Bank (and Gaza still) is Occupied Territory, not part of the state of Israel – Israeli law does not extend there.

    – Israel claims sovereignty over East Jerusalem, but this has never been recognised, in fact a UN security council resolution explicitly rejects it.

    – the 3 million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens and have limited personal and property protections available.

    – I never suggested that settlers steal water – they don’t need to. Israel controls all allocation of water in the West Bank and the settlers are given 10 times as much per capita as the indiginous population. Hence the nice lawns.

    Travelling around that part of the world is a life changing and value-changing experience, which I wanted to share

    best regards

    Simon David

  5. Simon p David, i’ve seen some of your bullshit comments made on Google Earth and they are not neutral – which they are supposed to be.

    They are anything but neutral and represent your own opinion on Israeli politics. Criticizing checkpoints and settlements without knowing the full facts makes you look ignorant. Even the ‘facts’ above are totally incorrect. You probably sourced some crap from radical left wing websites and decided that was all there was to know about the whole matter.

    In fact, checkpoints are required not just to make the palestinians life as miserable as possible (please!), but rather to prevent terrorist activity and are very much necessary in such violent territory. If you read hebrew, you would realise from those documents presented on google earch that the land ‘confiscated’ was actually bought.

    Please get your facts straight and adjust your google community earth comments accordingly.

    Josh Brown

  6. Josh, you are unfortunately not very well informed. And calling Simon’s post “bullshit” does now make you any better informed, my friend.

    It is difficult, I know, for someone who has been brought up to believe Israel is virtuous and misunderstood, to open one’s eyes. Yet it is possible and it is worth it. However first we must try to put 1/2 a century of propaganda into perspective.

    One of the things that makes it difficult is that, as so often, there is a tiny grain of truth amongst some of the lies and distortions. For example, as you correctly point out, some of the land in what now makes up Israel was actually legitimately bought. However the vast majority was not. It was stolen. And the sooner we try to understand our own history the sooner we will understand the situation we find ourselves in today and what we might be able to do about it.

    But simply yelling “bullshit” and “ignorant” when it is indeed us that are misinformed and not the rest of the world will not work. Sorry.

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