This could be a huge problem for international politics.
Maps of the world are all the same, right? Wrong. Many borders around the world are disputed and may vary depending on who created the map you are looking out. You might think that a map on the internet, like Google Maps, would give a consistent and objective view of borders, but, you’d be wrong again. It turns out that, depending on what country you are in, the borders shown on Google Maps may be different.
A new paper entitled “Google's World: The Impact of ‘Agnostic Cartographers’ on the State-Dominated International Legal System,” in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law explores the legal implications of these disparities.
“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,” study author Ethan R. Merel writes in his paper.
An example of this is Demchok, a small village and military encampment, administered by India, but claimed by China. When viewed from India, Google Maps shows the village as belonging to India, whereas when the map is viewed from China, it appears to belong to the Chinese. Other disputed areas include Aksai Chin, Arunachal Pradesh, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan, Bhutan, Crimea, Jammu and Kashmir, the Pinnacle Islands, the Shaksam Valley, the Siachen Glacier, the Spratly Islands, and the Tirpani and Bara Hotii valleys.
We already knew that Google Search results differ based on what Google knows about you — your search history, location, preferences, gender, age, etc — so this really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise.
However, Merel sees this methodology as problematic.
“While Google’s cartographic platforms, Google Maps and Google Earth, are the most widely used mapping services in the world, their methodology for affixing borders and naming key features is completely unregulated and deviates from traditional mapping doctrine,” he writes in his paper.
Google Maps holds a powerful role in geopolitics, and Merel believes that a governing body such as the U.N. should be the one to make the decisions about where borders should lie. However, Merel also writes: "Google acknowledged that relying on U.N. information as authoritative is appealing, but that U.N. publications are both insufficiently detailed and often officially neutral on questions of toponymy."
So, for now, Google Maps does the best it can.
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