By Charles Miller
Politics continues to be in the news, even in “The Computer Corner.” An example is how Google Maps embroils the company in the politics of cartography. The fact is that even today there are many disputed borders between neighboring nations and Google has unfortunately found itself right in the middle of some of these war zones.
In 2010, in our hemisphere, there was a standoff involving 70 Costa Rican police officers and 50 Nicaraguan soldiers over jurisdiction and collection of tourist taxes on Isla Calero. It seems that Google Maps somehow drew the Nicaraguan border about two kilometers into territory claimed by Costa Rica. So did Costa Rica take this dispute to the United Nations or the International Court of Justice? No, it appealed to Google to change its map because so many who use online maps use Google’s maps. For its part, Google tried in vain to insist its maps were never intended “to decide military actions between two countries.”
This was not the first time Google found itself caught in a crossfire. The region of Arunachal Pradesh borders China, Bhutan and Myanmar while India has 100,000 troops there. Both China and India have laws on the books to forbid map makers showing a border in favor of the other country. Google tried to get around that by creating three different maps so that the people in each country would see what their governments wanted them to see. That did not go very well, and Google learned that any errors along the China-India border could provoke government censors and potentially end up with Google being blocked from one third of the world’s internet users.
Yet another political hot potato came in February 2014 when Russian troops seized the Crimea from Ukraine. Once again, Google went with the three-map approach. To most of the world, Google Maps shows Crimea with a dotted line denoting the disputed territory. If the Google server geolocates the user as being in Ukraine, then the user sees the version of the map that omits the dotted line making Crimea part of Ukraine. If the Google server geolocation detects that the user viewing the map is located inside Russia, then that person sees a map representing that Crimea is now apparently Russian territory.
This action was taken by Google despite the United Nations asking that nobody change any maps until the United Nations Regional Cartographic Conference could act. The fact that Google brazenly ignored the UN is telling. Countries ignore UN resolutions all the time, and it points to the fact that in many ways Google is now a company that has the influence of a nation state. Of course, it also could be that Google sees Russia is the worse enemy to make.
In past centuries when countries disagreed over a border, each produced its own map, and its citizens would rarely have a chance to see any other version. One might assume that the advent of the worldwide internet would have changed that, but it seems that French novelist Karr summed it up best when he wrote “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.