Google Maps offers a subjective view of the world. Does the company have something to hide?

Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)


It's easy to forget that all forms of technology present a point of view. Objective-seeming masses of data like Wikipedia and Google Earth offer digitized versions of the truth, unglorified recordings of history and place open to anyone with something to add. The aura of neutrality and openness surrounding these technologies is branding as much as it is philosophy, and the distinction between these two is central to understanding why neutrality and openness are impossible ideals for any technology platform to attain. Philosophy is an ordered process of thought meant to discover what is true; branding is an illogical process of fantasy through which we imagine how everything would be changed if what we want to be true was possible. What's presented in technologies like Google Earth and Wikipedia is a fantasy version of what life would be like if openness and neutrality were plausible.

Evidence for the limits of openness is everywhere when you look for it. In recent years a number of discrepancies have been found between satellite imagery featured on various online maps, most recently the appearance and non-appearance of what was alleged to be a secret CIA-built drone base in Saudia Arabia. The site appeared on Bing Maps while Google Maps showed only empty desert in the same location. Investigating the discrepancy for BuzzFeed John Herman reports a complicated layer of plausible deniability built into the map-building system, with service providers buying satellite imagery from commercial satellite operators to regularly update their maps. This makes it possible for Google to avoid incorporating incriminating photos into its maps by simply declining to use more recent images when there is reason to worry. It's censorship by delay rather than deletion. 

 

The aura of neutrality and openness surrounding these technologies is branding as much as it is philosophy.

 

Google publishes a Transparency Report in an effort to keep track of requests for deleted blog posts and images that it receives and whether or not it took action on them, but it also has a significant history of deleting content out of deference to specific political institutions. Before being bought by Google, the Maps technology was the product of a CIA-funded company Keyhole. In 2007, Google took out its most recent images of Basra, Iraq and substituted outdated ones from 2002 after reports that the technology had been used to plan attacks against British Troops in the area. In the buildup to the invasion of Afghanistan, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency bought exclusive rights to all satellite imagery to prevent any outside services from revealing newly-installed military compounds.

These cases may be understandable compromises for some, but they reveal the precise point at which openness and neutrality become branding and not philosophy: When it endangers the party who must hold the ideal. Openness is supportable so long as its prime beneficiaries are within Google's comfort zone, when the ideal of openness puts the company in conflict with the interests of the U.S. government, survival trumps transparency.

Facebook's foundation on the idea of openness is similarly susceptible to the company's central interests of surviving at large scale. This week Nick Bilton documented some questionable phenomena with Facebook's newest algorithms for promoting content, a service wherein the idealized philosophy of sharing is in fundamental opposition with the business practice of making money from sharing. Bilton noticed a significant drop in activity on his Facebook posts and found paying Facebook to "promote" them saw partial regains of attention of his users, reaching 5.2 more users than they would have without having bought promotion.

In the cases of both Facebook and Google, the pathos has become one increasingly bent on scale. The ideals of openness and sharing as positives are true on an individual scale, where people form direct and trusting bonds with one another in a shared community, but operating on a global scale, aiming for a user base in the billions, those ideals reverse themselves. Openness means prying open communities that one is not naturally a part of and using the information shared within the privilege of those human bonds to create ad revenue. And for those same companies openness and sharing are liabilities on a global scale because they cannot be spread without a centralizing authority that must, in all moral conflicts of interests, side with whatever party necessary to keep its place in the world secure.

The desire to simply hold onto one's place in the world is a universal value, something that's hard to blame anyone else for having. On an individual level, this need produces all sorts of strange and unpredictable tensions between people, and on the level of global corporate entities it leads to stranger ones still, where real places and objects are simply wiped from the record. Or rather what emerges is a parallel set of records purporting to represent the truer reality, put out by entities competing for survival in a market driven by advertising, a fight that doesn't fundamentally have any of our best interests in mind.