Congressional accusations of "airbrushing history" for showing pre-hurricane imagery of New Orleans caused Google to expedite a planned update to Google Earth.
Accused by a congressional subcommittee last week of "airbrushing history" for altering Google Earth last year to show imagery of New Orleans that predates Hurricane Katrina, Google on Sunday expedited a planned update of Google Earth with new high-resolution pictures of the Gulf Coast that better reflects reality.
"Google's use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of Hurricane Katrina a great injustice by airbrushing history," said Brad Miller, D-N.C., chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight in a letter sent to Google CEO Eric Schmidt on Friday.
Miller's observation clearly touched a nerve.
John Hanke, director of Google Earth & Maps, in a blog post describes Google's volunteer work on behalf of the victims of the hurricane, to make clear that Google's heart is in the right place. He points out that in 2005, Google worked diligently with NOAA, NASA, and others to update Google Earth with images that reflected the storm's impact. "We received a voice mail thanking us for the role Google Earth played in guiding rescuers to stranded victims," he said in his post.
Hanke's explanation for revising history is that last September Google replaced Gulf Coast imagery with higher-resolution satellite photos from before the storm "as part of a regular series of global data enhancements."
Such enhancements may have to become less regular and more cautious in light of the evident political ramifications of remaking the world. Hanke alludes to this possibility in his acknowledgment of "the increasingly important role that imagery is coming to play in the public discourse."
The issue is one Google has been aware of for years in the context of military installations -- governments around the world have made their displeasure known when Google Earth reveals too much -- but this controversy suggests a broader politicization of mapping.
Google has yet to respond to the questions raised in Miller's letter. The subcommittee would still like to hear more about Google's policies for handling requests to update or change map information, a congressional spokesperson said.
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