Google's stated mission is "to organize the world's information." But that's not always as simple as providing the best Chinese takeout menu: in its attempt to classify vast amounts of data, the internet search giant also must make choices that cause controversy—and the occasional international incident.
Its popular maps product, for example, informally adjudicates in numerous international border disputes. The ubiquity of Google Maps means that even unintentional glitches can have real world consequences. In one instance, reports the New York Times, "Google Maps’ imprecision reignited a long-standing border dispute that, with a few miscalculations, could have led to a real war."
Last week Google weighed in very publicly on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Reuters reports that following last November's UN vote to recognize Palestinian statehood, "Google's Palestinian homepage and other products previously labeled 'Palestinian Territories' were changed on May 1 to read 'Palestine.'"
As one might imagine, Palestinians are elated: Google has "put Palestine on the Internet map, making it a geographical reality," said an advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas. According to Reuters, he added "that the Palestinians had invited Google's cartographers to come and gather more data for their online maps." Israel, unsurprisingly, is furious, claiming that the Google's endorsement of Palestinian statehood is an attempt to circumvent the negotiations process.
Google claims it is simply following the lead of international organizations. A spokesman told the BBC that the company "consult[s] a number of sources and authorities when naming countries. … In this case, we are following the lead of the UN, Icann [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], ISO [International Organisation for Standardisation] and other international organisations."
Putting aside the question of whether Google considers U.S. interests as one of its "sources and authorities," the episode is yet another example of a world that does not turn on the bottom-up, transparent culture of the Wiki. Even the leaders of Silicon Valley—some of the biggest cheerleaders for an Arab Spring fueled by the power of individual Tweets—use an opaque process to reach decisions with significant geopolitical consequences.
Closer to home, tech industry leaders seem to have recognized that public policy is not made by Tweets alone, particularly when it comes to domestic issues. "Facebook’s lobbying budget swelled from $351,000 in 2010 to $2.45 million in the first three months of this year, while Google spent a record $18 million last year," reports the Times. Companies like Google—which once said its motto was "Don't Be Evil"—are finding it increasingly difficult to stay above the fray.