Most of us likely see maps as something uncontroversial and relatively permanent—a simple tool for getting from point A to point B. But in regions engaged in border disputes, maps can become a lot more contentious. In the past, individual cartographers could avoid controversy by simply drawing maps that reflected their country’s worldview. But what happens in the Internet era, when the whole world is using Google Maps?
As it turns out, Google Maps has a pretty fascinating policy for “solving” border disputes. Popular Science reports that when a border is disputed by two or more territories, Google Maps simply changes its borders in each country to reflect that country’s beliefs. Those in countries not affected by the border dispute see two dotted borders. On the other hand, citizens in the countries in disagreement see a solid line, one that represents their country’s view of the land dispute (see more of Google’s shifting borders here).
This method of customizing borders based on each individual country’s view of a geopolitical situation was the subject of a recent study, published in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. Researchers worry that Google’s seemingly impartial border-drawing policy could inadvertently fuel border disputes.
“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,” researcher Ethan R. Merel explains. “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.”
Merel hopes to find a better way for Google Maps to display borders, and is advocating for increased oversight and regulation with regards to Google’s mapping policies. But for now, though we might all be using the same map app, we’re all seeing slightly different versions of the world.
[h/t Popular Science]