Oh, say, can you see, Washington DC?

Today’s Washington Post carries a well-written article dissecting the recent update to Google’s geospatial imagery database over Washington, DC.

While most of Washington DC now shows imagery taken by the USGS in 2005, the very center of DC uses older and slightly less detailed imagery by private firm Sanborn, taken in 2002. The reason is that Sanborn’s imagery is not censored, whereas the USGS redacts the White House and other landmarks. Google chose older imagery of the center of DC over newer imagery that has parts of it censored.

The WaPo article gives voice to local cartographer Nikolas Schiller, who first noted the specifics of the update on his blog and who laments the fact that the entire center of DC has to sport older imagery for the sake of avoiding the censorship of just a few buildings:

Schiller said he thinks Google should just use the 2002 map for the small spots the government has censored rather than the whole downtown area.

Why not? It’s a good question. If Google were to pursue such an editorial policy, it would come across as being much more aggressive against any form of censorship, and that is A Good Thing. But then, too, it would have to actually have an editorial policy, and that way lies a slippery slope, with inevitable charges of favoritism, double standards, etc.

Instead, Google’s actions attempt to affect (symbolically, at least) an attitude of laissez faire when it comes to interfering with image tiles. Governments may doctor imagery before it is released, and Google might use it wholesale (as it does in the Netherlands) but Google does not itself mix and match imagery at the sub-tile level. As with Basra in January, when the company replaced an entire series of image tiles with older ones, Google doesn’t micromanage decisions about what may or may not be justified censorship.

The upshot, indeed, is that the only tool Google is left with is a broad brush, and that it sometimes is forced to use it when confronted with governmental censorship as in DC (hence the inability to evade a de facto censorship policy). Soon there will be another option, however: Using those digital cameras and planes Google just acquired when it bought ImageAmerica last week. Perhaps then we will also finally get rid of the pixellation over the Naval Observatory, a favorite bugbear of the conspiratorially minded.