War, natural disasters and climate change are destroying some of the world's most precious cultural sites. Google is trying to help preserve these archaeological wonders by allowing users access to $3$D images of these treasures through its site.
But the project is raising questions about Google's motivations and about who should own the digital copyrights. Some critics call it a form of "digital colonialism."
When it comes to archaeological treasures, the losses have been mounting. ISIS blew up parts of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria and an earthquake hit Bagan, an ancient city in Myanmar, damaging dozens of temples, in $2016$. In the past, all archaeologists and historians had for restoration and research were photos, drawings, remnants and intuition.
But that's changing. Before the earthquake at Bagan, many of the temples on the site were scanned$\dots$[These] scans$\dots$are on Google's Arts & Culture site. The digital renditions allow viewers to virtually wander the halls of the temple, look up-close at paintings and turn the building over, to look up at its chambers$\dots$[Google Arts & Culture] works with museums and other nonprofits $\dots$to put high-quality images online.
The images of the temples in Bagan are part of a collaboration with CyArk, a nonprofit that creates the 3D scanning of historic sites$\dots$Google$\dots$says [it] doesn't make money off this website, but it fits in with Google's mission to make the world's information available and useful.
Critics say the collaboration could be an attempt by a large corporation to wrap itself in the sheen of culture. Ethan Watrall, an archaeologist, professor at Michigan State University and a member of the Society for American Archaeology, says he's not comfortable with the arrangement between CyArk and Google$\dots$ Watrall says this project is just a way for Google to promote Google. "They want to make this material accessible so people will browse it and be filled with wonder by it," he says. "But at its core, it's all about advertisements and driving traffic." Watrall says these images belong on the site of a museum or educational institution, where there is serious scholarship and a very different mission$\dots$
[There's] another issue for some archaeologists and art historians. CyArk owns the copyrights of the scans — not the countries where these sites are located. That means the countries need CyArk's permission to use these images for commercial purposes.
Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says it's the latest example of a Western nation appropriating a foreign culture, a centuries-long battle$\dots$CyArk says it copyrights the scans so no one can use them in an inappropriate way. The company says it works closely with authorities during the process, even training local people to help. But critics like Thompson are not persuaded$\dots$She would prefer the scans to be owned by the countries and people where these sites are located.
By “digital colonialism”, critics of the CyArk–Google project are referring to the fact that:
- countries where the scanned sites are located do not own the scan copyrights
- CyArk and Google have not shared the details of digitisation with the host countries
- the scanning process can damage delicate frescos and statues at the sites
- CyArk and Google have been scanning images without copyright permission from host countries