The politics of the map are often overlooked. Whether it be the fact that continents on conventional maps are sized not based on their real size, but on political sensibilities; or the fact that the creation of colonies in countries such as Iraq by drawing lines on a map has led to tensions within states years later, the impact of the map on politics is often given less credit than it deserves.
Google Maps then, has a tough job balancing the way in which it labels countries and borders to reflect the various sensibilities of the regions involved. Earlier this week, social media commentators noticed that there is no ‘Palestine’ label within the borders of the state, which prompted outcry and outrage. Google faces a curious dilemma here: if they introduce a label for Palestine then they risk provoking similar outrage from pro-Israel social media commentators; if they don’t introduce a Palestine label then pro-Palestinian commentators will continue to use ‘#PalestineIsHere’.
Is there justifiable reason for people to be outraged at the lack of a Palestine label? Let’s look at some other examples on Google Maps to see if there is some precedent.
Several overseas territories and autonomous areas belonging to other nations have their own labels on Google Maps. These areas get a status above that of Palestine but they are not particularly controversial, and their being given or not being given labels on the map is unlikely to provoke strong feelings from any sovereign nations or viewers. Areas such as the Falklands Islands, claimed by both the United Kingdom and Argentina, have bracketed secondary names to avoid complaints; while Crimea is not labelled and is separated from the rest of Ukraine by a dashed line. Considering the difference in circumstances between these areas and Palestine, there are no arguments for or against so far.
No states without any recognition have any status on Google Maps, while states with limited recognition (into which category Palestine falls) have various recognition on the service. Abkhazia (recognised by 4 UN Member States), South Ossetia (also recognised by 4), and Northern Cyprus (recognised by 1) all have dotted borders outlining their location but no name label, and as such could be considered to have the closest status to Palestine.
The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (claiming the area of Western Sahara) has international recognition from 47 UN Member States but does not have a label on Google Maps – although Western Sahara is labelled and is separated from Morocco by a dotted line, in the same way that Palestine is separated from Israel, with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank being labelled.
So far then, it seems that Palestine – internationally recognised as a sovereign state by 136 nations and an Observer State of the United Nations – has a situation which is equivalent to many similar (albeit less well-known) cases for non-UN partially recognised states.
Unfortunately for Google, deeper analysis of their Maps service suggests that Palestine may not have a label because of a political motivation, rather than as part of a wider policy dealing with partially recognised states. Taiwan, recognised as independent by 21 UN Member States and without Palestine’s status as an Observer State, has its own label on Google Maps – despite its relations with China being similar to Palestine-Israel relations. Kosovo, recognised by 109 UN Member States, also has its own label and a dashed border.
When compared to these two latter cases, it seems that the ‘#PalestineIsHere’ group might have a case for the inclusion of a Palestine label on Google Maps. Palestine has vastly more significant international recognition than Taiwan and Kosovo – both labelled – and unlike both of those cases, Palestine has some status at the United Nations. What makes Taiwan and Kosovo worthy of labelling, yet prevents Palestine from being labelled? Presumably it can only be the contentious nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the West, compared with that of Serbia-Kosovo and China-Taiwan.
Granting Google recognition to Palestine could be just as important as formal diplomatic recognitions. Giving a country status on a map means that more people are likely to subconsciously accept the existence of that nation. Given the importance of the map to politics, Google’s continued lack of a Palestine label can only be a political decision.