Google Maps was hit with intense online backlash earlier this week when Middle Eastern media began to report that Palestine had been removed from the digital atlas.
There was just one problem, though: Google had never featured the name “Palestine” as a country on the map at all. In a statement, the company did say that the usual labels “West Bank” and “Gaza Strip” did temporarily disappear — though even that was unintentional.
“There has never been a ‘Palestine’ label on Google Maps, however we discovered a bug that removed the labels for ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip.’ We’re working quickly to bring these labels back to the area.”
Did Google really remove Palestine from Maps? https://t.co/ZJmHcloUYp
— AJ+ (@ajplus) August 11, 2016
It’s not clear just how long the “Gaza Strip” and “West Bank” labels have been missing, but the recent attention paid to this particular part of Google Maps appears to have flared up due to a statement from the Palestinian Journalists’ Forum.
“[This] is part of the Israeli scheme to establish its name as a legitimate state for generations to come and abolish Palestine once and for all. The move is also designed to falsify history, geography as well as the Palestinian people’s right to their homeland, and a failed attempt to tamper with the memory of Palestinians and Arabs as well as the world.”
The translation of the PJF statement was picked up by several global news outlets, including Russia Today and TeleSur. Despite the statement’s hazy origins, the story gained massive traction online. A petition started months ago to get Palestine on Google Maps doubled its signatures to 280,000 in just a few days.
— Sanz khan (@sanzkhan812) August 12, 2016
so google completely removed palestine from google maps. I love how normalized erasure and stealing land is in 2016 pic.twitter.com/nS5E95p4D1
— anne from accounting (@dearmrchrist) August 6, 2016
Following the whole ordeal, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America offered some insight on the PJF‘s leadership, including its director — who works at a staunchly anti-Israeli news outlet.
“That language might not seem especially journalistic. But it is typical of Hamas rhetoric — which is not surprising when considering that the director of the Palestinian Journalists’ Forum, Imad al-Efranji, is also the head of the Gaza branch Quds television station, a Hamas station that traffics in naked anti-Semitism — assertions that Jews make Passover matza out of Christian blood and global Judaism is a “plague” that controls the world’s financial system, for example — and broadcasts explicit calls to anti-Jewish violence.”
Also notable, as pointed out by The Washington Post, is the fact that Google Maps actually does list “Palestine” as the “de jure sovereign state” when cities or places within the Gaza Strip and West Bank are searched for.
Google Maps finds itself in a difficult position as the world’s go-to resource for physical representations of the earth. Palestine is just one of dozens of disputed territories that, no matter how they are divided, will manage to irk one group or another. Writing for The New York Times, Frank Jacobs noted how the service had become the de facto way that many demarcate the world’s frontiers.
“Over the past decade, Google Earth and Google Maps have become the online cartographic resources of reference. But popularity does not bestow authority…. Yet by virtue of its ubiquity, Google is often the arbiter of first recourse for borders and toponyms. So where Google’s maps show borders or place names that deviate from official usage or stray into international disputes, they may cause confusion, offense or worse.”
Issues with Palestine and Israel are hardly the first time this lack of consensus has come to a head. In 2010, Google Maps incited a long-boiling skirmish between Nicaragua and Costa Rica when the former country invaded the latter after seeing that the border changed in its favor on the online cartography resource. Nicaraguan troops stormed the area to erect a national flag, which resulted in a show of force from Costa Rica in the form of 70 police officers. Oddly enough, reported Wired, the whole ordeal wouldn’t have happened had they used Microsoft’s Bing.
Because of the potential for unintended consequences, Google Maps has been known to tailor its product to the country that it’s being viewed in. Sometimes those choices are based on local law, which may officially restrict such depictions, like India and Pakistan’s contentious Kashmir region.
Complaint filed against Google maps for wrong depiction of India’s boundaries
— News18 (@CNNnews18) December 14, 2014
When asked about the practice by Quartz, a Google spokesperson responded that the company always seeks to cause as little controversy as possible with its border choices.
“Google Maps makes every effort to depict disputed regions and features objectively… Where we have local versions, we follow local regulations for naming and borders.”
Google Maps will find it difficult to achieve objectivity no matter how it addresses Palestine. Of the 193 United Nations member states, 136, around 71 percent, recognize the state of Palestine. Notably absent from this list of supporters are the United States and most of Western Europe. However, until the UN Security Council votes to establish the nation of Palestine, the support from various UN members for Palestine is considered a recommendation, not statehood, according to the UN Charter.
[Image via StrelaStudio/Shuttershock]