Google’s Juggling Act: The politics of mapping borders in geo-politically sensitive areas

By Lillianne Thomas

Google, as a ubiquitous modern-day supplier of digital maps found in many common applications, has (whether the company desires it or not) a key role in depicting boundaries between states on their maps. Google’s innovative (albeit controversial) strategy to make their maps universally satisfying has thus far allowed the company to pursue its mission to map the world. The company seeks to avoid being pulled into controversy between states by using the clever mechanism of depicting a map based on the location from which it is requested. The strategy sounds like it does the job, but with the growing count and complexity of territorial disputes, how effective is this “make everyone happy” approach? Furthermore, what are the practical limits of such an approach by Google, and what are the effects on users from third-party states? In the end, it is likely that Google will run into the age-old problem that “you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

In February and March of 2014, the Crimean Crisis triggered international attention to the making of new geopolitical borders. As mainland Ukraine prepared for integration into the European Union, the Crimean peninsula—comprised of an ethno-linguistically Russian majority—slipped further into the tide of a separatist movement intended to unite Crimea with Russia. What ensued was a deft campaign of subtle aggression fought between the two countries, ultimately ending in Russian military intervention and successful capture of the peninsula. Crimea is currently under control of the Russian state, although the Ukraine considers this territorial dislocation to be temporary. So, geopolitically speaking, what is Crimea? Well, as shown by Google Maps, Crimea is what is referred to as a disputed territory.

Okay, but how exactly does Google represent the border between Ukraine and Crimea? If Google’s mapping service were to universally mark the border in favor of either of the involved countries’ objectives, the company would face political—and perhaps on an even greater scale, social—backlash. Google avoids becoming politically biased by abiding to the local laws and politics of the host government. In other words, Google Maps in the United States and Google Maps in the Ukraine publish different maps of the border between the Ukraine and Crimea than Google Russia does.
By publishing maps that communicate different sides of the same story, Google aims to pacify the governments of the Ukraine and Russia yet the company leaves the greater breadth of its map users throughout the world likely confused and/or frustrated. Moreover, the United Nation’s support for the territorial integrity of the Ukraine stands contrary to Google’s provision of a map in Russia that shows Crimea as separate from the Ukraine. Under UN Resolution A/RES/68.262, Russia’s annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine was deemed illegal under international law, and as a representative of the United States remarked, “borders are not mere suggestions.”

Google may be performing its best practice strategy by avoiding a circumstance wherein the company would polarize itself from any major fraction of its consumer population. However, with many imminent and currently unfolding territorial disputes throughout the world, Google’s choice to define borders differently in different maps may start to get messy.

There are clear limits to Google’s approach. For example, how does (or could) Google even manage the tangled web of territorial claims in the South China Sea? China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia all claim some of the same islands…and with China’s claim being based on a historic assertion defined by the 9-dashed line and not the 200-mile EEZ defined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Google is really in a bind. The South China Sea viewed from the Google Maps in the United States shows no indication of which countries control the highly disputed Paracel and Spratley islands, and this illustrates an important decision that Google made when developing its maps.

Perhaps the ultimate limit to Google’s mapping strategy is manifest in the recently announced fanatical Islamic State abridging parts of Syria and Iraq. Established by IS, a religious extremist group claiming to have a formidable government and military, the Islamic State defies the existing borders of Iraq and Syria. As of now, Google does not recognize the Islamic State in its maps, and this is a conscious and political decision tailored to the present. Yet as abhorrent as the premise for the Islamic State is, there is the possibility that it could still exist, for example, three years from now. It is not clear what criteria Google would, or could, use to handle this situation. Put another way, at what point does a “non-state” become a “state” on Google’s maps? Google will have to decide whether to recognize what could materialize as a political reality, or simply ignore the matter as the company does in the case of the South China Sea.

And what about effect Google’s strategy has on third party users? What is an American to believe when viewing maps of the Crimean peninsula from their respective version of Google Maps? How would he or she know that territorial disputes exist in the South China Sea or the Middle East when viewing Google Maps without any prior knowledge? Even without explicit intent to do so, Google’s depiction of borders influences the perceptions and understanding of third-party users throughout the world. As a globally referenced data source, Google’s maps thus can at minimum induce confusion, and taken further, could result in misinformed decision-making by parties that rely on these maps. Herein lies Google’s profound ability to shape peoples’ social and political awareness of the world.

So, Google has applied a creative approach to document border disputes on their maps in some well-known, and well-understood, situations. But that technique only goes so far, and offers no solution for borders subject to multiple disputes, or for situations where non-state actors appear to be successfully carving out states of their own. Moreover, because Google chooses to address some territorial disputes and ignore others, there is a degree to which Google’s approach is less transparent for viewers from third party states. The question really becomes how does Google decide when to show a disputed border and when to simply ignore the situation. The answer to this question is unclear, and yet has increasingly greater consequences as Google grows as the provider of choice for global digital maps. But one thing is clear: Google is probably never going to be able to please all of the people all of the time.

Image: Google Maps Ukraine (top), Google Maps Russia (bottom)

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