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ZOA Convinces Google to Change the Earth

By Brian Cuban

Posted: Aug 23rd, 2008


How often can someone claim that they changed the way we view the world. Deborah Fidel and the Zionist Organization of American (ZOA) can do just that. They took the battlefield against Internet media giant Google against the backdrop of the on-going border conflict between Palestine and Israel.

Google Earth is a virtual globe. It maps the earth by the superimposition of images obtained from satellite imagery, aerial photography and other sources. It allows a user to pick almost any place on earth and zoom in on many different levels. One feature of Google Earth allows users to create "layers" - overlays of data, photos, political concerns, environment data, etc. - on the basic map. This allows as user to add subjective interpretation and opinion on numerous aspects of a particular town, city or other location and post it on "Google Globe" This can be particularly thorny when a user posts information that goes to the very core of a global border dispute such as the one between Israel and Palestine.

The conflict began when a guy by the name of Thameen Darby, inserted notations on the Google Earth map(see below) stating that the Israeli city of Kiryat Yam had been built on the location of the displaced Arab town of Ghawarina. If you look at the Google Earth map as it existed after the notations you will see the city of "Arab Ghawarina" including the following flag notation:

"This is one of the Palestinian localities evacuated and destroyed after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. For basic information about this locality, including brief history, the 1948 events, its current status, pictures and statistics, visit:"

This did not go over well with the town of Kiryat Yam. It is a blue collar town trying to become a preferred resort destination. Having an Arab city with such an inflammatory notation overlayed on a map viewed by millions was not going help the cause. It was their position that even from a historical context the placement and notation were false. They claimed the area in which the city is located was barren dessert prior to its inception and that Jews settled it well before the establishment of the State of Israel. Darby stated that he was placing the notations to give historical context allowing displaced Palestinians to understand their heritage.

Officials of Kiryat Yam made repeated demand on Google to remove the alleged erroneous information from the map. Google earth responded that it was its policy not to remove user-generated content unless the content was illegal. The town and the historical notations would stay. Kiryat Yam responded that the false placement of the town and the false historical statement may in fact be a violation of Israeli law. The town threatened to sue Google for misrepresentation under Israeli law. Google refused to budge and made the following statements:

"Both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives are posted on the map of Israel, and there are other places of controversy in the world map besides the Middle East"'

"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..."

The ZOA position was that Google Earth by allowing the placement of "Arab Ghawarina" to stay was engaging in a process of allowing the borders of Israel to be distorted. It was also creating revisionist history to the benefit of Palestine by creating a "Google Global" perception that Israel is in the wrong in the on-going border dispute. The ZOA press release states:

On July 15, 2008, the ZOA sent a letter to Dr. Eric Schmidt, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Google Inc. (Google), with copies to Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google's Co-Founders criticizing Google for knowingly permitting Google Earth to:

"become a vehicle for promoting false and demonizing political propaganda about Jews and Israel."

In the end the ZOA prevailed. Google agreed to remove the offending layer and historical notation. If you now input the town of Ghawarina into Google Earth you will be taken to the layer of "Not Arab Ghawarina". The flag notation now reads:

"The 1880 Palestine Exploration Fund map designates a region by this name east of Acre. This area is populated with Israeli Arabs. The map does not have any towns here."

I had the opportunity to interview Deborah Fidel of the Pittsburgh Branch of the ZOA. She was actively involved in convincing Google to remove the remove the town as well as the historical flag in question. Deborah had this to say:

"I saw the problem; we wrote a letter to Google CEO signed by Mort Klein (pres) and Susan Tuchman, Esq., director of our Center for Law and Justice saying that the site was misleading users into thinking that they information they see is endorsed by Google, when it is user generated. We demanded a disclaimer at the least, and a change in the system whereby some posts gain more prominence than others by virtue of their technical 'elegance' without any regard to accuracy or reliability. Apparently, they were convinced. ZOA changed the way 400 million people see Israel - literally! "

Dr. Andre Oboler is a post-doctoral fellow in the political science department at Bar-Ilan University and Legacy Heritage Fellow at the NGO Monitor watchdog group. He had previously stated:

"Israel is being specifically targeted. No one else is running a campaign against a country like this... Google needs to review their policy for the community content layer, perhaps dividing it up or further restricting it to content about current significant locations and landmarks"

In the end has anything really changed? Should the notation have been allowed to stay? The dispute underlays a larger issue. When someone looks at a map does that person automatically assume anything information contained within the map to be accurate and objectively researched? If the answer is yes, maybe Google does have a larger responsibility than they profess with regards to the method and type of user data uploaded to Google Earth.



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