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Did Google do something wrong about New Orleans?

The Baltimore Sun

Bloggers weren't happy when they found out that Google had quietly swapped out its satellite images of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans with outdated pre-Katrina aerial views, but many took greater umbrage over a congressman's scolding of the search giant's practices.

For its part, Google relented last week and put the post-Katrina images back online, but only after criticism had reached Capitol Hill.

Rep. Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat who is chairman of a House science and technology subcommittee, wrote a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt asking him to explain himself and said the use of outdated images was akin to "airbrushing history."

"To use older, pre-Katrina imagery when more recent images are available without some explanation as to why appears to be fundamentally dishonest," Miller told the Associated Press. He had also asked Google to brief his staff on its thought processes by the end of last week.

Google responded to its critics in and out of Congress by saying that it had intended no cover-up. Rather, it said, it had replaced its post-Katrina images in September with earlier aerial images because they were of a higher resolution - though admittedly lacking in any trace of hurricane devastation.

"Given that the [satellite image] changes that affected New Orleans happened many months ago, we were a bit surprised by some of these recent comments," wrote John Hanke, the director of Google Maps and Google Earth, on the company's blog. "Nevertheless, we recognize the increasingly important role that imagery is coming to play in the public discourse, and so we're happy to say that we have been able to expedite the processing of recent (2006) aerial photography for the Gulf Coast area (already in process for an upcoming release) that is equal in resolution to the data it is replacing.

Bloggers weren't very impressed with Google's response - "This is not the first time Google has tried to hide behind algorithms in response to questions about controversial results," wrote Kevin Arthur of Question Technology - but ironically, Miller's tongue-lashing appeared to shift some of the heat off the search giant.

"Boy, you would think our government could find something more to be concerned about than whether the satellite images that Google is showing on Google Earth or Google Maps are up to date or not," wrote Jimmy Daniels on "One would think they would be more worried about updating the images provided by the U.S. Geological Survey," he added, linking to USGS satellite images also showing New Orleans unscathed by hurricanes.

"I know a bum rap when I see one," wrote Lauren Weinstein on his blog, "Suggesting that Google is in some sort of conspiracy to hide Katrina damage is just plain stupid and grandstanding of the worst sort. The persons making such accusations should be ashamed of themselves."

Added a commenter on Slash Dot: "Who knows why they changed it? Who cares? I suspect Google management has better things to do than to sit around discussing whether to put up pre- or post-Katrina images."

Google's don't-be-evil mantra is quickly reaching its expiration date - the world is just too complex for such wonderfully simple notions to succeed in the long term - but reputations linger, and a lot of people are still willing to give Google the benefit of the doubt.

Congressmen, however, are on their own.

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