Google Earth Lands in Hot Water in (Surprise) the Middle East

| Wed Feb. 13, 2008 7:56 PM EST

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Reports Monday described how the Israeli town of Kiryat Yam is suing Google for slander after a Google Earth user added a note asserting that the town was built on the ruins of a Palestinian locality following the war of 1948. Google has said that it will not remove the note, which appears on the application's "community layer," because it is not "in any way illegal."

But earlier this month another problem developed that is potentially thornier for Google because it involves the company's official cartographic judgment. The problem comes in the form of a letter to Google's CEO from the National Iranian American Council loudly protesting the inclusion in Google Earth of the term "Arabian Gulf"—along with the more common "Persian Gulf."

Only a few years ago, in 2004, Google's co-founders told shareholders that "focused objectivity" was a trait "most important in Google's past success" and "most fundamental for its future." But that was before Google Earth. And if the two complaints this month show anything, it's that a map is a highly subjective thing. Including "Arabian Gulf" was a classic hedge on Google's part, probably an attempt to strive for that ideal of objectivity. NIAC's letter, however, explains the term's somewhat untoward history:

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