The Politics of Google’s Mapping

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Being one of the world’s leading online web mapping service means also trying to walk the impossible tightrope between the political bickering of countries.  More than a few times has Google found itself in the middle of a maelstrom involving the geopolitical delineations and labels shown in Google Maps and Google Earth.

Google has now raised the ire of Iranians over its refusal to label the waters between Iran and the Arab Gulf states on Google Maps.  Iranians call this gulf the Persian Gulf while Arabs have named it the Arabian Gulf.  The government of Iran is now threatening to escalate the situation through litigation against Google for removing the label.  Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast declared via the state-run Press TV on May 17, 2012:

“Toying with modern technologies in political issues is among the new measures by the enemies against Iran, (and) in this regard, Google has been treated as a plaything.”

Mehmanparast went on to say that if Google doesn’t restore the label, a complaint against Google will be made.  Typing in a search on Google Maps for the Persian Gulf takes the searcher to the correct geographic location but the body of water is unlabeled.  A search within Google Earth shows the same location retains both the Persian Gulf and Arabian Gulf labels.  Google’s explanation for the lack of a label on Google Maps was provided anonymously by a company spokesperson, “It’s just simply the case that we don’t have a label for every body of water.

Nameless gulf on Google Maps.
Nameless gulf on Google Maps.
In Google Earth, the same gulf retains both the Arabian Gulf and Persian Gulf labels.
In Google Earth, the same gulf retains both the Arabian Gulf and Persian Gulf labels.

The July/August 2010 edition of the Washington Monthly has an interesting piece entitled, “The Agnostic Cartographer: How Google’s open-ended maps are embroiling the company in some of the world’s touchiest geopolitical disputes” on the political cartographic controversies that Google has become enmeshed in.  Robert Boorstin, the director of Google’s public policy team states, “We work to provide as much discoverable information as possible so that users can make their own judgments about geopolitical disputes.”   Yet, despite this approach, Google has been the target of ire by various nations over the designation of  disputed geographic areas.

The article highlights several cases such as the government of Cambodia over the depiction of a disputed border with Thailand near an eleventh-century Khmer temple complex in Preah Vihear Province.  A formal letter of complaint was written to Google and ‘a senior Cambodian official very publicly declared Google’s representation of the border “devoid of truth and reality, and professionally irresponsible, if not pretentious,” not to mention “very wrong and not internationally recognized.”’ Google was also sued by the Israeli city of Kiryat Yam for libel “after a Palestinian civilian named Thameen Darby went on Google Earth and tagged the town as the site of an Arab village destroyed by Israelis in 1948.”

For Chinese users Google Maps show Arunachal Pradesh as part of China
For Indian Users, Google maps shows Arunachal Pradesh as part of India.
For users outside of India and China, Arunachal Pradesh is showed using dotted lines as a disputed region.

Based on a 3,000 meter difference in the demarcation of the boundary line between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, a Nicaraguan military commander moved his troops into Costa Rica and set up camp.  Eden Pastora, the commander, used the maps as a justification for taking down a Costa Rican flag and doing clean up work along the river.  SearchEngineLand noted the international incident based on a Google translation of an article posted in the Costa Rican newspaper, La Nacion.  In the article, Pastora defends his actions, stating,

“See the satellite photo on Google and there you see the border. In the last 3,000 meters the two sides are from Nicaragua. From there to El Castillo, the border itself is the right bank, is clarito ” Pastor argued.

The boundary between the countries in that area differs significantly on Google Maps compared to Bing Maps and Yahoo! Maps (see below).  Both Bing and Yahoo! reflect the border differently.  While many sites on the Internet are buzzing with this Google Map “error”, the reality of where to border should be isn’t so clear.  TechEurope of the Wall Street Journal reports:

The sovereignty of the area affected, around Harbour Head along the San Juan river between the two countries, is hotly disputed.

… [I]n a statement to Tech Europe, the Nicaraguan Embassy in London said: “The Government of Nicaragua has formally requested to Google not to accept the petition of Costa Rica to modify the border demarcation presented on Google Maps service, which recognizes Harbour Head as Nicaraguan territory. The path presented by Google corresponds to the various treaties that define the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border.”

To that end:

Google declined to go into any detail, saying only: “We are aware of the issue and are currently investigating it. If we determine that our map is incorrect we will update the data as quickly as possible.”

Google has also pointed inquiries to their July post on Google Lat Long about resolving border disputes.

After reviewing the situation, Google  determined that the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border depiction was incorrect and will be updated:

“We determined that there was indeed an error in the compilation of the source data, by up to 2.7 km (1.6 mi),” Google’s Charlie Hale wrote. “The U.S. Department of State has provided a corrected version and we are now working to update our maps.”

Source:  Google corrects mistake after Nicaragua blames site’s maps for invasion of Costa Rica – NY Daily News

Add another complaint to the litany against Google Maps.  This time, the complaint isn’t about boundaries but about labeling.  Brazilian officials are irate with Google over the scale dependent labels being used in Rio de Janeiro.  When zoomed out, city officials say that too much prominence is given to favelas over tourist designations.  Favelas are shanty towns found all around the city of Rio de Janeiro.  Globo, a Brazilian newspaper, has protested that the labeling makes “false impression that the urban area is nothing more than an immense cluster of favelas.”  BBC reports:

The middle class neighbourhood of Cosme Velho – where tourists take the cable car up to the famous statue of Christ – is not labelled, but the smaller Favela da Villa Imaculate Conceicao is.

Sugar Loaf mountain is also not marked and in Humaita, the favela area is labelled in the same size text as the entire district.

Representatives from Google have agreed to rework the scale dependent labels to take into account feedback about which sites should be prominently labeled.  Read more: Google to amend Rio maps over Brazil favela complaints

Label controversy over scale dependent labels being used in Rio de Janeiro showing favelas.
Label controversy over scale dependent labels being used in Rio de Janeiro showing favelas.

Ire over map edits isn’t something exclusive to Google’s mapping efforts.

In late 2006, the Georgia Department of Transportation revised their state maps, removing over 500 small towns and hamlets from thei Official Highway and Transporation map. This move has angered many living in those small rural areas and has led to accusations of “urban conceit”.

Related articles about the politics of online mapping:

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4 thoughts on “The Politics of Google’s Mapping”

  1. It’s refreshing to see that Google both suffer this and often manage to resolve it. For years I was pestered by well organized North Koreans because of a map I used on a web site, citing the internationally accepted names of several features – that the N Koreans wanted re-named. I was first asked nicely, then bombarded daily , for over a year, with identical copies of an email demanding a change in names… then they gave up.

    Any attempt to explain that it was a UK site, for UK students, using the names accepted in the UK was utterly futile. Expecting Google to please everyone from everywhere is somewhat of a tall order I’d say, and I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.
    If only we didn’t have politics and people who take umbrage :-)

  2. I think Google is often rushed into publishing a lot of data without necessarily checking the historical or political realities or sensitivities first. While a cartographer used to spend a lot of time checking every aspect of his map before publishing it, I’m afraid those time are behind us. Having said that, the user should know that Google is a product for the masses, a popular product and by consequence can’t always be politically correct. Maybe more disclaimers or notes are needed?

  3. This is a prime example of the lack of education not so much on the provider but on the user.
    When the first commercial GPS units in the US were sold, many a story was told about how people went off roads, into rivers, the wrong house or building found etc, because “…the GPS said so…”
    This is not the fault of the GPS maker, but the end user who puts reliance upon an object rather than using common sense.
    Maps are nothing more than representations of what is real and can, and usually are very subjective and misleading because only so much information can be put into them.
    Google however has every capability to accommodate everyone in this argument because of the locational aspects of the Google system that allows the system to ID a user based on their geographical location. This can be easily solved by changing the names based on this system.
    But again, it is the end user and the responsibility to rely on one’s own intellect to figure out things.
    Having been involved in boundary disputes and boundary locations and ownership in my previous work, I am familiar with the quagmire involved with this issue. A simple matter of a situation such as “Undefined Riparian Boundary” when a real boundary with a real fence line that is legally recognized by all parties can be a major issue, especially when involving sovereign ownership.

    There are no real easy answers in the end and such issues of ownership is best left to the politicians.
    Google however is involved in an age old problem for cartographers and mappers in general probably since the time of the Babylonians. For Google, the answer will lay outside their control and may never be able to make everyone happy. Hence the disclaimers they give when downloading the program.

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