Freeman: Where is the Line Drawn?

Google has become the global architect of borders – to what end?

by Jillian Freeman | 4/20/18 2:00am

The Asian region of the Arunachal Pradesh borders Bhutan, China, India and Myanmar. For many years, this area has been a point of controversy between China and India. On one hand, India stations thousands of troops in the region, proclaiming it as Indian territory. However, China also claims ownership, calling it South Tibet. Every day, disputes like this are occurring around the world. Various border regions are contested by powerful players, with tensions sometimes high enough to cause violence and war. There is one player independent of these hostile countries, however, that is keeping many of them out of perpetual conflict. This often-overlooked player is Google Maps.

A number of countries have laws to force mapmakers to draw borders that reflect the state’s views. Other than the Arunachal Pradesh, these sticky situations include Crimea, Kashmir and Palestine. For years, these regions have been the cause of everything from simple political dispute to serious bloodshed. The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 was a major contributor to the ensuing military conflict between the country and Ukraine that persists today. Palestine and Israel, rivals since their national inceptions, have been continuously fighting over the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the Six-Day War in 1967 awarded the territories to Israel; just last month, 17 Palestinians were killed in Gaza protests. Similarly, India and Pakistan have quarreled over the ownership of Kashmir since 1947, and have fought two wars over it since then. The countries have maintained what the Council on Foreign Relations considers only “a fragile ceasefire” since 2003, although the two have had violent clashes regularly across the border: last September, over 20 militants were killed in two different disputes.

How does Google Maps get around these legal problems associated with land possession when creating their maps? They simply create separate ones. For example, a user of Ukrainian Google Maps will see Crimea marked as disputed territory. A user of Google Maps Russia, on the other hand, will see Crimea shown as a part of Russia. Ed Parsons, Google’s chief geographer, spoke to The Independent on the subject, saying “I guess, naively perhaps, we hoped we could have one global map of the world that everyone used, but politics is complicated,” he stated, noting the legal problems that come with portraying a border incorrectly.

This worry has led Google Maps to create blissfully comforting maps for all countries with disputed territories. These separate maps come as the application is simultaneously becoming the de facto map of the world, having 74 percent of smartphone map users globally as its clients. Unfortunately, this threatening combination has come at a high price: the responsibility now rests in Google Maps’s hands to get every line correct, or else risk war between powerful states. There have, frighteningly enough, been numerous times when Google has failed at playing this influential role.

In 2009, Google accidentally switched the Indian and Chinese maps of the Arunachal Pradesh. Outrage erupted in both countries; many Indian and Chinese citizens, due to Google’s crafty mapping strategy, were previously unaware that their country’s legitimacy in the region wasn’t globally recognized. One can infer that this made an impact on China’s decision to permanently ban Google from its servers in 2010.

The same year that China banned Google, Cambodia publicly denounced Google Maps’s “radically misleading” portrayal of the Thai-Cambodia border. Both countries were at the time amid deadly military clashes occurring along the border, and Google Maps’s inaccuracy greatly heightened tensions a day before the Cambodian prime minister’s first visit to the disputed region. That same year, Nicaragua seized land that was under the control of Costa Rica, claiming that it was their land to begin with. Their proof? Google Maps. Google’s faulty data had actually caused Nicaraguan troops to be deployed. Costa Rica, in response, did not go through any internationally recognized governmental organization to resolve this conflict. Their first move was to go to Google Maps. Despite having no legal authority, Google has gained legitimacy as the supervisor of border control.

In Google Map’s case, its mistakes outweigh its successes. Although the service has done a fair job at keeping peace, it is hard to believe that prolonging inevitable territorial aggression is a smart way to do so. Countries can now make decisions with immense global implications –– for example, to deploy troops or declare war –– based on information from Google Maps. It is imperative that everyone is aware of the dangerous power that this entails; a company like Alphabet, Google Maps’ parent company, can easily become biased – especially at a time when there are no checks in place.

This is not the United Nations. This is not a global, governmental organization with international recognition or checks and balances. The international community cannot trust a mere company to make these important, effectual decisions. In today’s chaotic world, groups go to great lengths to claim what they believe is their land. In many cases, lives are lost in the process. Today, a technology company has the power to catalyze these conflicts, and this dangerous, unprecedented ability must cease. At some point, the world will have to draw the line on Google’s unchecked ability to draw all the lines. Hopefully, it can do so before another mistake causes violent implications.