News  Google Earth raises Darfur-IPR concerns

When Lisa Parks clicks on photos of victims of the Darfur genocide on Google Earth, she worries that Google’s corporate agenda may skew the software’s potential to revolutionize global awareness.

“Every technology has the potential to be used in really progressive ways and really negative ways, except for the nuclear bomb,” Parks said in an interview with The Daily. “I think Google Earth has the potential to provide anyone around the world with access to technology, the ability to input data and to have a voice in a global digital database.”

Parks, a visiting media and films study professor from University of California, Santa Barbara, discussed a project initiated by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in conjunction with Google Earth Outreach program, to add a Crisis in Darfur layer to the explosively popular Google Earth software, which had been downloaded over 200 million times at the time of the layer’s inclusion.

The Darfur layer provides georeferencing information for the region with stories, photos, and data aggregated from public domain sources, such as 900-page Amnesty International reports. For example, a photo layer links users to photos of people and events taken at the exact GPS location corresponding to where their curser lies on the screen, providing geophysical and political context.

Parks hypothesized that if used righteously, the burgeoning “Google Earth Effect” could revolutionize how the global community reacts to foreign events, comparing its potential to how televised news coverage moved the public to oppose the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

“Some say that CNN has played a role in shaping foreign policy at certain historical junctures. Let’s see if, when something happens in the world, instead of turning on CNN, people go to their computers and turn on Google Earth,” she postulated. “What would happen then, is that people could see what is going on directly from the multitude of voices who experience the event, rather than from CNN’s single verdict on the event.”

Although Parks recognized the added value that Google’s service provides, she criticized how Google claims ownership over public information. She felt its assertion of intellectual property over public information and methods of controlling what information is accessible through Google Earth usurps the potential to demystify our planet’s surface in favour of corporate profit.

“The image may be blurred or undated, but the Google brand is never lost,” she said. “My concern is that because of the intellectual property laws and the dominant position of Google in the global digital economy, there is a tendency for Google to set the parameters and structures of who can participate in Google Earth as well.”

Parks is visiting McGill between March 3 and 17 as a Beaverbrook Scholar in Residence. She was invited by Media@McGill, which is an academic group comprised of the faculty of McGill’s Department of Art History and Communications Studies along with other prominent Canadian scholars of media studies. As part of her time at McGill, Parks has been giving guest lectures, meeting with students about their research, and polishing off her new works regarding Google Earth and the digital TV transition.