Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Geopolitics of Google Maps

The Google Maps project started out innocently enough. When the company launched Google Maps, it made the following announcement on its official blog:
We think maps can be useful and fun, so we've designed Google Maps to simplify how to get from point A to point B. Say you're looking for "hotels near LAX." With Google Maps you'll see nearby hotels plotted right on a crisp new map (we use new rendering methods to make them easier to read). Click and drag the map to view the adjacent area dynamically - there's no wait for a new image to download...[read more].
But like with a lot of other things that Google does to simplify people's lives, this venture has also gotten the company embroiled in controversy: Google Maps, a project with purely geeky and cartographical intentions in mind, has become the latest frontier in boundary disputes.

Recently, this issue got a lot of attention with the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican flare up. When a Nicaraguan general was asked why his troops were stationed on the Costa Rican side of the border, he cited Google's erroneous version of the map, which showed his position to be on the Nicaraguan side. This led to the Costa Rican government to petition Google to change the map, while Nicaragua filed a counter-petition to keep it the same.

The incorrect Nicaragua-Costa Rica boundary
Even though the general's answer was completely disingenuous (it was just a pretense really—Nicaraguan troops stayed put even after the mistake become clear), it became an occassion to reopen this old controversy. The blog Ogle Earth, which is dedicated in fact to how "internet mapping tools like Google Earth affect science and society," has an excellent post that tries to get at the real historical motivation for the general's action.

The Google geopolitics problem is not just restricted to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The Indian ministers have become savvy to what the media calls Google's "3-map policy" regarding the Indian border:

The problem is that Google shows three separate maps of India depending on which version you use. The Indian version shows India as Indians know it, but the Chinese version shows parts belonging to China, and the American version shows all those areas disputed. It seems, the reporter says dismissively, that Google is giving everyone what they want—which means a company like Google which tries to stay out of politics and keep everyone happy really can't win any which way.

I have a hunch that these controversies are only just starting. Border disputes have always been around, but now the stakes are much higher. Because Google Maps are the standard maps for most people around the world, border conflicts are no longer just about reconciling with the neighbors but also about protecting your national integrity and pride in front of the entire world. If Google's going to continue with its Maps project, than it should expect more angry phone calls, and should probably set up a Political Affairs department to handle them.

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