Recent days have seen outrage across social media, after an online group claimed last week that Google had removed “Palestine” from its maps. The truth, however, is that Google had never used that term in its web application.
The Forum of Palestinian Journalists released a statement in Arabic accusing Google of removing the label “Palestine” from its maps.
“The Palestinian media forum condemns the crime carried out by Google to delete the name of Palestine and calls for Google to rescind its decision and apologize to the Palestinian people,” they wrote. “A new crime to be added to the list of those ongoing against the Palestinian people of crimes committed by the global search engine Google on July 25 when it removed the name of Palestine [from its maps].”
The statement quickly led to a flurry of activity on Facebook, Twitter and other social media by supporters of the Palestinians who condemned the move, using the hashtag #PalestineIsHere.
So far, more than 250,000 people have signed an online petition to put Palestine on the map. But that campaign was begun five months ago, long before Google allegedly removed Palestine, and it has received the majority of its signatures in the past few days.
— RT (@RT_com) August 9, 2016
The reality is that even though 136 UN countries recognize Palestine as an independent state, Google has followed the policy of the US and 49 other countries and has never listed a country named Palestine.
“There has never been a ‘Palestine’ label on Google Maps,” a Google spokesperson told the tech news site Engadget on Wednesday. “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.”
Today, Google Maps does show Gaza as a label. However, if one searches for “Palestine,” “Gaza Strip” or “West Bank,” the map shows an unlabeled area contained within a dotted line.
The website Disputed Territories in 2014 showed that despite Google’s best efforts, it is extremely difficult to remain impartial.
A Washington Monthly report from 2010, cited by several media outlets but no longer available online, explained Google’s attempts to remain impartial and the difficulties that this can lead to:
Rather than produce one definitive map of the world, Google offers multiple interpretations of the earth’s geography. Sometimes, this takes the form of customized maps that cater to the beliefs of one nation or another. More often, though, Google is simply an agnostic cartographer — a peddler of ‘place browsers’ that contain a multitude of views instead of univocal, authoritative, traditional maps.
The Washington Monthly cited then-director of Google’s public policy team Robert Boorstin: “We work to provide as much discoverable information as possible so that users can make their own judgments about geopolitical disputes.”
The term “Palestine” is contentious largely because the final status of the Palestinian territories and their borders has yet to be settled through negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Talks between the parties have been largely at a standstill for over four years, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s government demanding several preconditions ahead of their resumption.