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Inappropriate image on Google Maps causes crackdown

After an unsavory prank went viral recently, Google has suspended a program to let people make changes to Google Maps.

Late last month, Google issued a formal apology for an image on Google Maps depicting its Android robot logo urinating on an Apple logo. Some user drew the cartoon under the guise of adding a new park in a region of Pakistan, and the fake park prank quickly spread around the world.

"We're sorry for this inappropriate user-created content; we're working to remove it quickly," Google spokesperson Mara Harris told The Washington Post at the time. "We also learn from these issues, and we're constantly improving how we detect, prevent, and handle bad edits."

The issue highlighted a weakness in Google's Map Maker program, which enables users to update Google Maps based on their personal knowledge of an area. The idea is to let locals keep maps accurate and up to date as things in their towns change. Google said it would review every change before implementing it into public view, but clearly that hasn't sufficed.

"They can't keep up with monitoring every single one," CNET's Bridget Carey explained.

So they're shutting down the editing feature, at least for now. The company announced Tuesday that it was temporarily disabling editing across the globe, citing that "the most recent incident was particularly troubling and unfortunate."

In a post on the Map Maker product forum, a Google team member explained that "a strong user" had created the image, which likely got through because users who contribute often are less closely monitored and may even have their changes automatically approved. Google chose to stop auto-approval, which meant that all changes would need to be manually reviewed. That quickly created an untenable bottleneck.

"Given the current state of the system, we have come to the conclusion that it is not fair to any of our users to let them continue to spend time editing," the post said. "Every edit you make is essentially going to a backlog that is growing very fast. We believe that it is more fair to only say that if we do not have the capacity to review edits at roughly the rate they come in, we have to take a pause."

Moral of the story? CNET's Carey put it best: There are lots of clever vandals and "it's why we can't have nice things."

Google has since removed the offensive image from Google Maps.

  • Amanda Schupak

    Amanda Schupak is the science and technology editor at CBSNews.com