Google has a funny way of doing business — one that involves muddying politics in the Middle East.
In recent months, the organization has taken the unprecedented step to rename internationally recognized bodies of water. Google Earth has begun using the controversial term “Arabian Gulf” to the body of water traditionally and internationally identified as the “Persian Gulf.”
Now many may think: What’s in a name? Why would this even be an issue?
In the Middle East, nothing is just a name. And with more than 180,000 US troops in this unstable region, being oblivious to the politics of geographical renaming is dangerous.
Historically, the accuracy of the term Persian Gulf is undisputed. Several legal documents from the United Nations as well as the United States Board of Geographic Names confirm the legitimacy of the term, as do millennia of classical history. For example, the ancient Greeks called the Persian Gulf, “Sinus Persicus,” the Romans called it “Mare Persicum,” and the Arabs called it, “Bahr al-Farsia.”
The political campaign to change the name Persian Gulf to the “Arabian Gulf” began approximately 50 years ago, as part of a pan-Arab strategy aimed at diminishing the status of non-Arab influences in the Middle East, including that of Iran and Israel.
It is a term whose very purpose has been to create divisions in an already divided region. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser used it to rally the Arab masses against Israel and Iran. A decade later, Saddam Hussein used it to mobilize the Arabs in the war against Iran. Today, the term is frequently used by radicals and militants in the Middle East — again, with the aim to create divisions and fuel conflict.
Google now has the dubious distinction of joining Nasser and Saddam Hussein in this political campaign.
In February 2008, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) sent a letter to Google’s CEO, Dr. Eric E. Schmidt, to explain the political background of the term and request that Google refrain from entering into the politics of geographical renaming and let the Persian Gulf remain the Persian Gulf.
More than three months later, Google has yet to formally respond to NIAC’s letter. In fact, the closest response NIAC has received is an ambiguous April 8 blog post on Google’s Public Policy Blog: “As the publishers of a geographic reference tool, we believe that Google should not choose sides in international geopolitical disputes. For this reason, we’ve chosen to implement a uniform policy of “Primary Local Usage.”
But what exactly is “Primary Local Usage”? And what is Google’ threshold of measurement?
Google defines its current policy of primary local usage as a combination of three separate markers (primacy, commonality, and locality) that they believe help Google avoid choosing “sides in international geopolitical disputes.”
According to a post on their public policy blog, the primacy marker means that out of each possible name only the most common name(s) for each body of water will be used. As for the commonality or the frequency of its use, a name must be widespread and not subject to arbitrary government renaming. Their final qualifier is the input of the neighboring nations that have a “stake” in the body of water; meaning that the deciding factor will be that neighboring nations all have input in potential names.
Although Google claims that this method allows for an “optimal combination of neutrality, objectivity, and legitimacy,” this unusual and uncharacteristically amorphous standard counteracts any “sensitivity” Google had hoped to convey.
In fact, it makes Google the very political tool it claims it seeks to avoid becoming.
In defense of its methods, Google has said that its safeguards will prevent a ruler from naming “the Pacific Ocean after her mother,” by requiring any potential name be commonly accepted by the general populace. Contrary to Google’s purported intentions, however, this policy actually opens the door for politically motivated geographical renaming.
By bypassing traditional academic sources, Google has turned itself into an enabler of those who would use name disputes to fuel conflict.
Had Google Earth existed in 1980 when Saddam Hussein first attempted to use the label “Arabian Gulf” as a way to rally support for invading Iran, it would have embraced the Iraqi dictator’s policy. By Google’s standards, Hussein’s arbitrary renaming would be (and is) a justifiable manipulation of geographical naming for political and divisive goals.
In fall 2004, the National Geographic Society (NGS) made a similar misstep by using the term Arabian Gulf for the Persian Gulf; but after a campaign led by the National Iranian American Council, the NGS recognized the folly of getting involved in the politics of geographical renaming and corrected their mistake in their 8th Edition maps.
Google could learn a thing or two from the NGS’s sensibility.�