Boycotting Jewish settlements in the West Bank may seem like an easy task. But Airbnb, the online home-rental service, may find it harder than expected to delist homes in the occupied territory that it described Monday as being “at the core of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Like many internet giants, Airbnb doesn’t actually have its own map service. Instead, it uses Google Maps to allow users to search for an apartment or house geographically. The embedded-map functions allow potential renters to scan the places they plan to visit from a bird’s-eye view, surveying potential homes.
But relying on Google Maps may also make any attempt at differentiating between Jewish and Palestinian communities that much harder – especially if the goal is not to ban Palestinians from renting out their homes as well.
Google Maps data does not “recognize” Palestine as a sovereign territory in the same way it recognizes Israel. It also makes no clear distinction between Jewish settlements and Palestinian communities in the West Bank. As a result, drawing that distinction based on the information provided by Google Maps is nigh-on impossible.
While Google Maps does try to steer clear of political issues, the inherently political nature of border drawing and national demarcations has already seen it dragged into the thorniest of issues. In Israel, it was previously accused of “deleting” Palestine from the map – a claim later found to be false, since Palestine as a sovereign territory was never on the map to begin with. Instead, Google’s map service offers an outline of the Green Line, the de facto internationally recognized pre-1967 border between Israel proper and the occupied West Bank.
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Using only Google Maps to define the border near Jerusalem makes the situation even more complex. Though Airbnb told Haaretz the ban will not affect East Jerusalem, it is unclear how this will work if Google Maps is employed, as the border it provides for dividing “Palestinian” East Jerusalem from “Israeli” West Jerusalem could in theory leave some Israeli communities outside Airbnb. This includes the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, the City of David area, as well as the French Hill neighborhood and both Hebrew University campuses, all inside the West Bank per Google's map service.
Then there are mixed neighborhoods like Abu Tor, whose main road spans both parts of the city and is home to both Jews and Arabs. Will the Palestinian living on the Jewish side be allowed to continue renting out his home while his cousin down the street will not?
Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem like Silwan, where Jewish settlers have increased their presence and at times even won legal ownership battles, pose a unique challenge of their own. But they also serve to highlight the futility of trying to use aggregated online data to solve political questions.
In fact, there is no real way of using Google Maps data to discern which communities belong to Palestinians and which to Jewish Israelis. Clicking on a community’s name will reveal a short snippet of text describing it as either a “Palestinian community” or a “Jewish settlement.” But this too is a slippery slope – for just as Airbnb uses Google for its maps, Google uses Wikipedia for its information on the different communities.
More than anything, this means that the question of what constitutes an Israeli settlement may actually fall to the unwitting volunteers editing Wikipedia – a platform that, despite all its benefits, does leave content exposed to manipulation. What’s to stop a settler who supplements their income by renting out their hilltop villa from changing the online encyclopedia’s article about their outpost?
Google and Amazon make heavy use of Wikipedia’s content, and that has already backfired. Ahead of the midterms, for example, someone vandalized the Wikipedia page for California’s Republican Party, describing its ideological worldview as “Nazism.” This “fact” was aggregated by Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant bot and presented inside Google’s search “knowledge graph” – that informative little box that shows up every time you google something – until the mistake was picked up by national media and quickly fixed.
For all intents and purposes, Airbnb has outsourced the political question at the heart of its ban. Unless it plans to start its own version of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch and maintain a blacklist of settlements and outposts, it may find itself barring Palestinians as well as Israeli settlers from its service.
After this article's publication, Airbnb told Haaretz they have a "framework" in place to deal with the settlement issue and stressed the ban does not include East Jerusalem. Airbnb did not provide further detail regarding this framework.