Tuesday 12 February 2013

The Happiest Gulag in the World

After its 2011 acquisition of Zagat, a popular service that allows users to review restaurants, hotels, bars and places of interest, Google has made some headway in integrating its ratings into its own Places listings. A notable success story among many more questionable decisions (see a previous post), Zagat has come to completely replace Google's own reviewing service and has as recently as this week become the target of a further advertising campaign from the search giant.

The assumed site of today's nuclear test, viewed on Google Earth
Perhaps clumsily, this surge of publicity happens to coincide with the addition of further detail to the Google Maps imaging of North Korea. While adding such elements as the assumed locations of several of the worst prison camps in the world, the company unfortunately neglected to prevent the creation of Zagat listings for the sites, which have since acquired as many as 70 individual reviews.

Drawing comments varying from the ironic and darkly humorous to the ideological, the gulags of the East Asian fiefdom have been described by users in such terms as "a family friendly retreat" and "better than most places in the US", with discussion only occasionally turning to more serious themes. While this mischievous and playful quality of internet culture might to some extent threaten to undermine the message Google might have sought to put across through the update, released scant weeks after the company's chairman, Eric Schmidt, visited the autocracy, the new data certainly stands to raise the profile of the sites, believed to hold over 200,000 political prisoners and enemies of the regime.

Human rights activists have already found Google's satellite imaging service to be a valuable ally, assisting the earlier location of additional prison camps and, today, the identification of what is believed to be the country's latest weapons testing site. So long as users are willing to accept that others might not take the situation as seriously as they, the company's services offer an increasingly useful insight into the inner workings of one of the most secretive nations on the planet. As events unfold therefore, global commentators remain poised for future developments at the Secret Base hidden along the helpfully named "Nuclear Test Road"...

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