Next time you look at Google Maps, remember that it might not be as absolute as you thought. That’s because Google shifts the borders between countries, depending on what country you are in when you look at them. That is, Google customizes its maps, depending on what the viewer expects to see.
“[Google’s] methodology for affixing borders and naming key features is completely unregulated and deviates from traditional mapping doctrine,” writes Ethan Merel in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. “Google customizes its maps to adhere to each individual country’s beliefs and laws, so that its maps do not show a single and objective reality, but rather affirm existing perspectives of the world.”
Historically, cartographers have striven to make their maps as objective as possible. It could be argued that Google is doing the same with its own mapping platform, but the scale of its operation shows the cracks in what we think of as objectivity. While it’s straightforward to accurately plot a physical feature like a road or a mountain to the satisfaction of all viewers, territorial borders are as much about politics as practicality.
Merel’s paper begins with the story of The First Google Maps War, when in October 2010, “Nicaraguan military forces led by Commander Edén Pastora crossed into Costa Rican territory and seized the long-disputed region near Isla Calero.” The reason? Google Maps had put the region inside Nicaragua. Google fixed the error, and Nicaragua backed down.
We know the term “legal border,” and if you consider it, you’ll immediately see that different countries will have their own interpretations of the “legal” part. Merel’s paper explores this aspect, but the practical result is that Google Maps modifies borders depending on where you are when you access the site. For instance, China and India both prohibit the publication of maps that don’t tell their respective political truths regarding the disputed Arunachal Pradesh region. In 2009, Google got into hot water for drawing the borders differently depending on the location of the viewer. “So if you accessed Google in China,” wrote Scott Neumann for NPR in 2012, “you’d see a map showing the disputed areas under Beijing’s control. In India, it’s just the opposite.”
Because they seem to correspond so closely to the territory they represent, maps fool us into believing in them more than most other models. The classic Mercator projection, which flattens the globe in a way that makes Greenland and Antarctica seem bigger than the rest of the world’s land combined, shows how much maps deviate from reality. Even East and West aren’t quite as objective as you might think, as this XKCD cartoon shows:
“Notably,” writes Merel, “for the vast majority of modern history, maps were used by states to control the people residing within their borders.” Changing the map was often enough to redraw real territorial lines, without any actual enforcement. If you control the description, you control what it describes:
Instead of having to conquer and hold territory by force, which also required either beguiling or subduing local populations, maps permitted legal ownership of territory to serve as another commodity for bartering among the world’s ruling class.
Now, though, Google is the arbiter of border placement. A state may choose to redefine borders (especially internal borders), but until Google makes it so, then those borders only exist theoretically in many people’s practical lives. This lends a lot of power to a non-state entity, even though Google may not want the responsibility.
For most of us, who use Google Maps to find a nearby pizza restaurant, or check the best tram route to get to that restaurant, this makes little difference (unless there’s a turf war between nearby [url=http://www.johnsbrickovenpizza.com]John’s Pizza and Joe’s Pizza in New York City). But even if we’re not getting ready to invade Costa Rica or China, it’s a lesson to take everything on the Internet, even Google Maps, with a pinch of salt. Or oregano.