Googles maps superimpose historical maps on top of modern street maps

Google's maps superimpose historical maps on top of modern street maps

The Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting story out of Japan involving Google’s mapping service. Google Earth in Japan includes layers which detail historical maps that have sparked controversy. The incident raises some interesting questions about technology companies and their responsibility to the societies they do business in.

Some of the layers that exist in Google Earth’s maps of Japan provide historical maps of  locales where long-discriminated communities have lived.  These people, known as ‘burakumin’, number about 3 million today and are the descendants of ‘low-caste’ people.

They are ethnically identical to other Japanese, but were forced to live in isolation because they worked jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals, and digging graves. Though discrimination still exists, their history has mostly been forgotten.

Google is accused of being blind:

…Google failed to judge how its offering would be received, as it has often done in Japan. The company is now facing inquiries from the Justice Ministry and angry accusations of prejudice because its maps detailed the locations of former low-caste communities.

A Japanese politician outlines why he thinks the service is discriminatory:

“If there is an incident because of these maps, and Google is just going to say ‘it’s not our fault’ or ‘it’s down to the user,’ then we have no choice but to conclude that Google’s system itself is a form of prejudice,” said Toru Matsuoka, a member of Japan’s upper house of parliament.

By providing this information, Google is part of the continued discrimination against the people living in these areas. Just one example of unintended consequences and the complexity of doing business globally.