Beloved Silicon Valley start-up Airbnb recently found itself thrust into the middle of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Supporters of Palestine were infuriated to discover that Airbnb had seemingly taken Israel's side in the longstanding war over boundaries.
On Airbnb.com, a dashed line marks the border for Israel established in 1949, yet dozens of listings in the occupied West Bank, to the east of the line, showed up as Israeli vacation rentals. The secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization sent a letter to CEO Brian Chesky, warning that Airbnb was “effectively promoting the illegal Israeli colonization of occupied land.”
The company explained to The Associated Press that it uses Google Maps to determine locations. However on Google Maps, addresses in Palestinian cities and Jewish settlements in this area aren't listed with an affiliated country. It was more likely instead that the actual culprit was the Airbnb hosts in the Jewish settlements, who are free on the platform to make changes to their location—which is problematic when there's a political conflict on the ground of that location.
"It is Israel," one of the illicit Airbnb hosts told the AP. "I don't really understand the controversy here."
Airbnb said in an e-mailed statement that listings are “based on trust and we depend on hosts and guests to be transparent with one another.” Technology companies that seek to link everyone in the world are inevitably going to find themselves at the center of geopolitical conflict and national identity—but those in the business of drawing digital boundaries that reflect real world ones face a special challenge.
Look, for example, at how Microsoft's Bing and Google Maps represent disputed territories around the world. Both Bing and Google use porous, dotted-line borders to indicate disputed territories, but their views of the world are different. Here's the Israel-Palestine region. Both Google (left) and Bing (right) portray the entire area as a network of porous borders, destroying the illusion of any solid sense of state.
Here's Jammu and Kashmir, a semi-autonomous state whose territory is disputed by India and Pakistan. Note how in some places where Google (on the left) chose a dashed line, such as the border with the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and the Giglet and Baltistan region's border with China, Bing (on the right) went solid:
Airbnb also has plenty of listings in the disputed region. A search for Pakistan pulls up hundreds of listings in Jammu and Kashmir. If you click through, most individual listings indicate that they are located in India or rely on the Google Maps default and list no nation at all, but a few inside the state borders are listed as Pakistan.
In Western Sahara, a partially recognized state that is the subject of a decades-long disputed between Morocco and the Algerian-backed Polisario Front, Google and Bing both clearly indicate contested borders.
On Airbnb, however, most of the listings in the disputed region are listed as in Morocco (even when you click through to the actual listing, not just in search). It's understandable; most tourists are probably searching for surf towns in Morocco, rather than "Western Sahara."
Google Maps tries to ensure that the borders of its maps are sensitive to local laws and politics, and it attempts to take a neutral stance on disputes. Even so, back in 2010, it nearly started a war after a Nicaraguan official encroached on Costa Rican territory, pointing at an out-of-date borderline on Google Maps as proof of his right to do so. Just last fall, Google inspired a border spat between Venezuela and Guyana after names in a contested English-speaking region turned up labeled on Google Maps in Spanish.
“We do not make normative maps, we map to ground truth,” a Google spokesperson told me.
A spokesperson for Microsoft, which operates Bing Maps, directed me to an online cartographic statement. The company takes a more concrete approach to boundaries, reflecting the decisions of the International Court of Justice or the United Nations and only listing territories as disputed when there is no “legal judgment or significant international consensus.”
Gerard Toal, a professor and scholar of geopolitics at Virginia Tech, said that Google’s approach is in line with the best practices in map making.
“From a scholarly perspective, it is always good practice to acknowledge the disputed status of a territory,” he told me via e-mail. “The moral/political issue gets tricky when one side sees the territory as 'liberated' or 'the promised land' or 'occupied.' There is no formula of response: part of the challenge of knowing the world is knowing that certain of its territories are essentially contested.”
Google and Microsoft are forced to define boundaries, or at the very least point out where clear ones are lacking. On the other hand Airbnb, which has properties in a number of disputed territories, from the West Bank to Western Sahara, lets it users dispute boundaries digitally.
“We believe in the transformative power of allowing people to share experiences that can come from sharing a home,” Airbnb wrote me in an e-mailed statement.
Airbnb, in other words, believes that the the power of sharing a home with a stranger can overcome even age-old geopolitical conflicts.