When Google Maps gets it wrong

It’s a sensitive issue—Nicaragua recently justified an incursion into Costa Rica because of a mapping mistake

Erica Alini
When Google Maps gets it wrong
In the case of the disputed region of Kashmir, Google has tried to play it safe | Google

Online maps have recently sent Google on a collision course with a number of governments, a sign of how the business of Web-mapping is increasingly encroaching on what used to be states’ sovereign realm.

This month, Nicaragua justified a military incursion into a tiny parcel of land in Costa Rica by saying that the territory appeared on its side of the border on Google Maps. The incident represents at least the third time this year that real or alleged inaccuracies on online maps have landed the search engine giant in the midst of diplomatic rows over land. Earlier, Spain lodged a formal complaint after Google labelled a deserted Mediterranean island as Moroccan territory, a claim Madrid disputes. In February, Cambodia called Google “professionally irresponsible” for allegedly misrepresenting its frontier with Thailand. And China, with its own share of border issues, just launched its own Mapworld website, which rivals Google’s mapping services and goes blank over Chinese military sites.

For some, it may be hard to understand what all the fuss is about, since states presumably don’t need to rely on Google Maps to determine the location of their own borders and each other’s military outposts. Even in an often-dysfunctional country like Nica­ragua, one wouldn’t expect soldiers “roaming the jungle guided by their iPods,” notes political science professor Maxwell Cameron at the University of British Columbia. But countries “care tremendously” about maps, says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Governments like to be able to say where their own borders fall, and decide what to show and what to hide, but Zuckerman says transnational corporations like Google, which are charting the globe for the benefit of Web-savvy consumers, are increasingly challenging states’ claim to cartography.

Challenge a government on where its borders are and you’re calling into question the state’s integrity, says William Martel, professor of international security studies at Tufts University. It might get people questioning whether a government is telling the truth, or whether it can even figure out where the borders are. Martel adds that precisely determining the location of frontiers can be a challenge in remote areas where “geography is not as fine-tuned” as in the West.

That states think maps matter is a truism Google itself is probably highly aware of. Indeed, the company has a “consistent and global policy” to depict disputed regions, on a disputing country’s individual national Google domain, based on the claims made by that nation, according to one comment posted online by a Google employee last year. Search “Kashmir” on India’s national domain Google.in, and the country’s contested border with Pakistan shows as a solid line where Delhi thinks it should be. Try the same on Google.com and you’ll see an intricate set of dotted lines that potray both India and Pakistan’s claims on the land.

It’s a tactic that allows the Internet giant to comply with national laws all over the world, says Zuckerman, and the small errors that soured Spain, Cambodia and Costa Rica were probably the product of minor, unintentional mishaps—the stuff that even refined diplomats sometimes stumble on.