In 2010 Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica When asked why they’d seized territory they claimed it belong to them on Google Maps.
Who did Costa Rica turned to first? Nicaragua? The United Nations? No they went straight to Google because in the eyes of the world Google Maps has become the de facto world map.
Despite having non legal authority over international borders Google has become the world’s most powerful player.
Borders are a uniquely human concept and in most of the world the only tangible legitimacy they have is through maps. But the cost and resources required to make a map a staggering. Until recently countries were the only ones who could afford it. Cartography was a nationalized industry, which meant no map was without bias or influence.
Historically if you wanted to seize territory from a less powerful nation, you just really redrew the map. When questioned by locals you showed them the map., ignored their claims of already living there and held up the only piece of real evidence that exists. This is basically how colonialism worked, but with more genocide.
Probably the most extreme example is Africa. In 1884 10 per cent of Africa was under European control. Just 30 years later this has risen to 90 per cent. Land was negotiated from thousands of miles away and countries redrawn with little consideration for local or cultural boundaries, yet the map drawn then remains largely unchanged today.
Most would argue that today’s map of African is correct. There is some objective truth to it. But 130 years ago it was nothing of the sort. Over time the existence of a map is self legitimizing. While countries were the sole map makers it was fine if two states disagreed over a border. Each produced their own map and their citizens would rarely have a chance to see any other version. But as the internet arrived nationalized mapping decreased and companies like Google started to fill the gap.
An international company creating an international map for all? Not quite.
Google still relies on the approval of nation states. It’s all too easy to censor a website. Google only has to annoy one government to lose a country’s worth of users. Any errors along the China-India border could lose them 1/3 of the world’s customers.
The region of a one-child Pradesh borders India China Bhutan and Myanmar. Administrated as a state of India they keep a hundred thousand troops in the region but China also claims ownership calling it South Tibet. Each country has laws to stop map makers drawing the border in the others favor or even acknowledging the region is disputed. So Google creates three different maps.
This is what two thirds of the world will see on Google Maps. The dotted line indicates disputed territory, but if you view the area from a Chinese domain it shows it belongs to China and as a part of India from an Indian domain. No mapmaker previously had the ability to do this.
Historically you had to pick sides. The average Chinese or Indian citizen would be unaware of any dispute or at least there would have been until Google accidentally switched the borders in 2007. This caused outrage in both countries. Many in China were unaware that most of the world didn’t recognize China’s legitimacy over the region and members of the Indian Parliament accused Google of purposefully derailing an upcoming summit between the two nations.
There are similar disputes all along the India China border. All are heavily militarized with regular standoffs backed by two of the largest armies in the world both with nuclear weapons.
So just in case nobody noticed the first time around, Google managed to make the same mistake again in 2009. But the advantage of online maps is the speed they can be changed. A mistake of that magnitude 20 years ago would have taken years to correct instead of ours Google can react to political events quicker than any other map maker.
When Russian troops arrived in Crimea in February 2014 it was less than a month until Google showed the territory as disputed. This was despite the United Nations asking nobody to recognize any alteration of the status of Crimea. Google Maps in Russia shows Crimea as Russian territory and Ukrainian were interviewed from Ukraine the father.
The fact that Google is willing to ignore UN resolutions is a big deal. Countries do it all the time they protect their own interests and alliances above other nations, but Google is a company who now has the power and influence of a state. They’re big enough to survive any confrontation with the UN and probably see Russia as the worst enemy to make.
The UN moves slowly. The United Nations regional cartographic conference only meets every three or four years. Google has to make border and naming decisions daily. Those decisions may not have any legal weight, but everyone uses Google Maps, so in reality they’re the most important.
When South Sudan became an country in 2011 the vote didn’t specify the exact placement of the border leaving some towns and villages unsure whether they would be in Sudan or South Sudan. Each country naturally claimed ownership, but no official map would be made for a while It was left to Google to organize South Sudan community mapping events. They encouraged local people to create detailed maps of an area that was lackin any accurate data, and for a semi democratic process an almost precise border was decided.
There are still contested areas today and not without their bloodshed, but Google did more to help local territorial disputes than then UN or any state.
This isn’t the only example of Google using local input as the basis for their Maps. They publish a program called Google Map Maker, which allows anyone to make changes and suggestions. This is useful for new roads and public footpaths, but also helps Google decide what to call things. It’s strictly moderated and Google has the final say over the public version, but llike in Wikipedia things inevitably slip through the cracks. For obvious reasons you can’t edit the border of a country. There were hundreds of disputes in the world - imagine the chaos. So Google doesn’t get involved with most of them, but here and there throughout the world map it does change slightly based on where you’re stood.
This may not necessarily be a bad thing. Historically the larger power would just stamp out the smaller one, but with Google Maps as the unofficial official adjudicator borders could remain disputed forever, both sides constantly pointing guns at the other but rarely firing.
Is a long cold war better than an short hot one? That’s a philosophical question best left for the Commons, but for better or worse. Google is making edits all decisions on something most people view as an objective truth.
No political map can ever be a hundred percent accurate in the scientific sense of the word. At best they can be an diplomatic compromise and at worse they can be a propaganda tool.
Maps and especially Google Maps are amazing, but there should be treaty. Like any other media. They are subject to the motives and influences of the humans that made them.