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article imageGoogle Maps changes borders depending on where it's accessed from

By Michael Thomas     Mar 23, 2016 in Technology
A new paper reveals that the borders between nations on Google Maps may change depending on which country the service is accessed from.
The paper is titled "Google's World: The Impact of 'Agnostic Cartographers' on the State-Dominated International Legal System," by Ethan R. Merel. It was published in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.
As Popular Science explains, the essence of the paper shows that when a border is in dispute by two or more nations, Google will skew the border according to the belief of the country whose server the map was accessed from.
As an example, let's say there's a small region along the Germany-Poland border that both countries lay claim to. If you access Google Maps from Germany, that disputed region will be seen as a part of Germany. Access that same map in Poland, and it will be a part of Poland.
The problem with this approach is that it could provide grounds for conflict. As Merel says, Google Maps and Google Earth are the most widely used mapping services on the planet. The way Google decides on borders and what to name key areas is "completely unregulated and deviates from traditional mapping doctrine." As a result, there is no single reality relayed on its maps because it changes according to governmental beliefs.
One solution Merel suggests is getting an organization like the United Nations (UN) to settle conflicts. However, there are many obstacles to this happening. The UN Regional Cartographic Conferences meet every four years and therefore would likely not resolve issues quickly. Google, meanwhile, acknowledged that answering to the UN would be ideal, but the UN's maps are not as detailed and are officially neutral on border disputes.
Therefore, as of now it's up to individual nations as to whether they are willing to accept Google Maps' version of reality or push Google to make a change.
Google Maps has actually been a source of conflict already. In what the New York Times called the First Google Maps War, Nicaragua said it could dredge sections of the Rio San Juan in neighboring Costa Rica because it belonged, in fact, to the former country. It used Google Maps as a justification, to which Costa Rica protested. Google relented and "ceded" the land back to Costa Rica. Nicaragua responded by dispatching 50 soldiers onto Isla Portillos; Costa Rica countered with 70 police officials.
In 2011, the International Court of Justice provisionally ruled that neither country could maintain civilians, police or security forces in the contested area, though Costa Rica could send civilian teams to deal with environmental matters. In 2015, the ICJ officially ruled that the disputed area belongs to Costa Rica.
More about Google maps, Borders, border disputes
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