The Occupy Protesters Google-Bombed Maps

by Chris Silver Smith

The Atlantic Wire reported that Occupy Oakland protesters managed to get the name of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza to be changed in Google Maps to “Oscar Grant Plaza” — the name they dubbed it in┬áremembrance of a man killed by BART police on New Years in 2009.

After media began noticing the unofficial name appearing in Google Maps, Google apparently corrected the error. I just did the search, and the plaza is showing the official name within the map, although you can see from the tooltip that some user had been encouraging people to post ratings under the protesters’ nickname for the place:

Oscar Grant Plaza in Google Maps

A Google spokesperson admitted that the name came from user-submitted edits, and that it shouldn’t have been approved, but should have been allowed as a “search reference”. I’ll translate: Google should not have pasted the name on the map as an official place-name, but should have allowed it to be added to their synonym database so that people searching on the name could easily find the location it refers to. As you can see from my screen-grab, it is now functioning as a search reference.

Concerningly, this incident supports what I have been saying, along with others, that Google Maps is particularly prone to Google-bombing from user-submitted content (“UGC”) edits. As I illustrated recently from Mike Blumenthal’s experiment to flag Google HQ as closed, some types of edits can result in businesses getting their listings defaced with false claims that they’re no longer open, and in even worse cases business Place Pages could get forced to rank for obnoxious terms, and labeled with descriptive terms that sabotage business referrals.

I could argue that it’s actually improper for the plaza to be made to rank for the unofficial name in this place, under the condition of a purposeful Google-bombing exploit. I can also argue that it’s useful and helpful for users to be able to search for places under their common nicknames and alternative spellings. But, I bend more towards this being an inappropriate association in this case. The edits were a type of vandalism intended to hijack place-names in maps in order to convey a political message represented by what was probably a relative minority (assuming the Occupy Oakland protest was a part of the nationwide protest movements sparked by Occupy Wall Street, it’s hard to fathom what a police killing in 2009 has to do with the outrage against corporate corruption and economic problems, other than perhaps some desire to kick up the drama a notch or to appeal to a subset of protesters who desire to associate themselves with a sort of iconic martyrdom).

Considering how there are relatively few checks and balances in place, it’s really not surprising that a mob of people can hijack a place name in Google Maps and change it to communicate their political message. This sort of thing is happening on a much smaller scale to hundreds and thousands of businesses which are unfairly harmed by similarly applied user edits.

While it’s great that consumers have a greater voice in this Business 2.0 age, I think some more balance needs to be brought back to “The Force” by way of limiting the easy manipulation of Google Places and it’s vulnerability to such exploits.


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2 Responses to “The Occupy Protesters Google-Bombed Maps”

  1. I take it you’re not from Oakland. The death of Oscar Grant is still fresh heartache around here. Like Simon & Garfunkel says, the words of the profit are written on the subway walls and I’m here to tell you that Oscar Grant graffiti is still going up all the time. You forget that his killer’s trial was not so long ago. The people of Oakland thus felt betrayed by their city twice: that a police officer should so boldly shoot Oscar Grant with his hands tied behind his back and a man standing on his neck, and betrayed again when he was convicted only of manslaughter. I’m sure many people that organized around the trial have joined the 99% movement. I’ve seen several people wearing Oscar Grant memorial shirts in the camp.

    To rename the plaza in honor of a victim of police brutality is to say, “this space has been reclaimed in the name of those who have been victimized.” Or more simply, “We haven’t forgotten.” Not simply about Oscar Grant, but also about Oscar Grant. The renaming makes clear the expectation that the campers are aware of who their enemies are (the police) and who their allies are (the good citizens still pissed about the young man’s death). The organizers are aware that the police will use violence to protect those in power and and administer it freely on the powerless. In Oakland, Oscar Grant is a powerful symbol of all these things.

    I’d chalk the Google Maps hack up to a clever prank. The movement is full of all sorts of artful pranks. And it got you talking about Occupy Oakland, didn’t it?

  2. I was mainly focussing upon how user-submitted content could too easily exploit Google Maps, and this is another example of how easy it is to hijack the map information.

    As for the individuals who hijacked this place name in association with the Occupy Oakland movement, there are processes for honoring individuals with place names, and that would be a better choice than simply defacing the map. While it might seem harmless, Google Maps are actually used in a variety of interfaces, and vandalism of place-names in maps can result in people being unable to get to places they need to find — imagine if emergency response personnel needed to get somewhere rapidly and if their GPS system was using Google Maps.

    What’s more astonishing to me is that the plaza was apparently already named to honor a civil rights leader and victim of oppression — Frank H. Ogawa was apparently a Japanese-American citizen who was rounded up with many others and placed in a detention camp back in 1942 when the US was at war with Japan. Despite the mistreatment, he apparently did not allow it to embitter himself, and he served the community as a city council member for many years.

    So, not only was the choice of Oscar Grant as an icon of the Occupy protest seemingly a logical disconnect from Wall Street and financial issues in the country — hijacking the official name of the park actually dishonored a former victim of authoritarianism who chose to change the system by working from within the government. I would imagine the family of Ogawa could not be happy that people so cavalierly renamed the plaza that was named to honor him.

    As apparent proponents of victims of authoritarianism I’d suspect that the people who came up with the arbitrary idea of renaming the park were simply ignorant of the local history involved, or else they would not have effectively insulted the very sort of icon that they were trying to honor.

    This does make for a very good example for why a mob of people shouldn’t be allowed to just hijack place-names on a whim.