The politics of map­ping

Some of the world’s big­gest tech com­pa­nies are get­ting drawn in to rows over na­tional bor­ders

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In an age when so­cial me­dia has dragged politics and en­ter­tain­ment closer to­gether than ever, it was per­haps in­evitable that Madonna would wade into the Is­rael-Pales­tine de­bate. “Put Pales­tine back on the map,” the singer de­manded last week af­ter shar­ing screen­shots of both Ap­ple and Google’s maps with her more than 15m fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram. The singer had picked up on a vi­ral post which claimed that the Sil­i­con Val­ley ti­tans had ef­fec­tively writ­ten off one of the world’s most fe­ro­ciously dis­puted ar­eas.

In fact, this was not true: the pair had not re­moved Pales­tine be­cause a la­bel for the area was never in­cluded on ei­ther of their apps to be­gin with.

But rather than just be­ing another ex­am­ple of fake news, the row pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into one of the prickly side-ef­fects that comes with be­ing the world’s de-facto at­lases.

Google and Ap­ple are in­creas­ingly be­ing asked to rule on in­ter­na­tional dis­putes which have flum­moxed gen­er­a­tions of diplo­mats. Google’s map­ping busi­ness has be­come an in­creas­ingly lu­cra­tive source of in­come and is ex­pected to gen­er­ate around $3.6bn (£2.8bn) in 2021, ac­cord­ing to RBC an­a­lysts.

Although Sil­i­con Val­ley has been show­ered with riches af­ter tai­lor­ing ad­verts to users based on their lo­ca­tions and hoover­ing up data about their jour­neys, it is also fac­ing a host of new chal­lenges from the ser­vices. “Map­ping lo­ca­tion data is fun­da­men­tally strate­gic,” says Simon Green­man, co-founder of MapQuest, which pro­duced di­rec­tions on­line be­fore be­ing sold to AOL in a bil­lion­dol­lar deal in 1999.

“Com­pa­nies like Ap­ple and Google mon­e­tise map­ping with ad­ver­tis­ing and the more they know about your lo­ca­tion, the more they know about your in­ter­est in what you’re search­ing for, mak­ing them bet­ter able to tar­get ad­ver­tis­ing. The bet­ter you can tar­get ad­ver­tis­ing, the more money you can make out of this.”

Green­man, now a di­rec­tor at ad­vi­sory firm Best Prac­tice AI, says it’s not the job of tech com­pa­nies to act as ar­biters on in­ter­na­tional bor­der dis­putes.

“They ba­si­cally al­low each coun­try to put their own per­spec­tive on what the bound­ary is,” he says.

The lu­cra­tive map­ping in­dus­try has drawn the tech giants into ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes on more than one oc­ca­sion.

In the Hi­malayan re­gion of Kash­mir, where the blood of tens of thou­sands has been spilled over a decades-long dis­pute, In­dian users get a dif­fer­ent

‘They’re tech giants, they should be able to han­dle the fact that the world is a com­pli­cated place’ ‘The more firms know about your lo­ca­tion, the more they know about your in­ter­est in what you’re search­ing for’

view to that of the rest of the world. To them,

Kash­mir is un­der In­dian con­trol – but else­where a dot­ted line points out the fact that the land is dis­puted with neigh­bour­ing Pak­istan.

Green­man de­scribes the tech com­pa­nies’ abil­ity to show maps through dif­fer­ent lenses as some­thing of a fudge.

Fol­low­ing the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Ap­ple de­clared the re­gion a Rus­sian ter­ri­tory when viewed through its apps in Rus­sia. How­ever, out­side of Rus­sia, the re­gion is still listed as Ukrainian.

“In the past we’ve had states look­ing af­ter their own map­ping. Of course, now we’ve got a sit­u­a­tion where multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions are do­ing it,” says Alex Kent, former pres­i­dent of the Bri­tish Car­to­graphic So­ci­ety. “For Amer­i­can cor­po­ra­tions to go and map the globe, they’re run­ning up against the dif­fi­culty of how to de­pict places. How you de­pict them is dic­tated by the coun­try you’re ac­cess­ing the data from, rather than a uni­fied stan­dard.” Kent says the likes of Ap­ple and Google have dif­fer­ent mo­ti­va­tions to tra­di­tional map­mak­ers who drew bound­aries based on power, de­fence and tax­a­tion.

The reader in car­tog­ra­phy at Can­ter­bury Christ Church Univer­sity also says that there is “im­mense power” in map­ping, par­tic­u­larly given the ubiq­uity of Ap­ple and Google’s apps. “If you go out to map some­thing, par­tic­u­larly if you’re talk­ing about na­tional bound­aries, then there has to be a de­gree of re­spon­si­bil­ity to try and keep as neu­tral as pos­si­ble with­out bend­ing to any par­tic­u­lar line,” he says. “Peo­ple are go­ing to take what you’ve done as fact.”

Tier­nan Kenny, of pol­icy con­sul­tant Access Part­ner­ship, sug­gests that the tech com­pa­nies may have got more than they bar­gained for when open­ing map­ping ser­vices.

“Maybe ini­tially they picked up map­ping as an ad­di­tional func­tion for users or some­thing that might be rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing, but it’s kind of turned into a po­lit­i­cal tool for them as well,” Kenny says.

Ac­cord­ing to Google, the com­pany re­mains neu­tral on geopo­lit­i­cal dis­putes. The tech firm works with the likes of the United Na­tions Group of Ex­perts on Ge­o­graph­i­cal Names, con­sults treaties, and part­ners with gov­ern­ment agen­cies to pro­vide ac­cu­rate map­ping.

Dashed lines help il­lus­trate con­tested land on the apps, but per­haps a broader vo­cab­u­lary is needed to pro­vide clar­ity on bor­ders.

“They’re tech­no­log­i­cal giants, they should be able to han­dle the fact that the world is a com­pli­cated place,” says Kent.

“Show­ing dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions on the ground si­mul­ta­ne­ously, even if you al­low peo­ple to turn it on or off on the key, would be one way of han­dling it.

“The prob­lem is an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of an in­stance. If you look at the sit­u­a­tion with Pales­tine, they’ve ob­vi­ously just not both­ered to show it in the first place.

“You could ar­gue why could they not show it to us but use a dif­fer­ent type of line, for ex­am­ple. It would mean some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

On­line map­ping has its roots in a pro­gram called EarthViewe­r, which was orig­i­nally the CIA’s satel­lite im­agery soft­ware.

US in­tel­li­gence ser­vices used it to pick out Iraqi camps in the early 2000s. The app was even­tu­ally scooped up by Google and turned into Google Earth in 2004.

Break­ing out satel­lite im­agery for con­sumers has brought with it a host of con­tro­ver­sies and crit­ics claim it has put state se­crets at risk. In 2015, it was re­ported the lo­ca­tion of Tai­wan’s Pa­triot de­fence mis­siles ap­peared on Google’s map­ping ser­vice. “There’s a long his­tory of mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy be­ing turned to civil­ian uses, like radar af­ter the Sec­ond World War,” says Kenny.

“Peo­ple will say the post-war eco­nomic boom up un­til the mid-Sev­en­ties was fu­elled by peo­ple tak­ing mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy and con­vert­ing it. But there are lim­i­ta­tions.

“GPS, for ex­am­ple, isn’t a great tech­nol­ogy for hu­mans be­cause it was de­signed to lo­cate a tank in a bat­tle­field. Very of­ten, Maps can place you 20 or 30 me­tres away from where you ac­tu­ally are as it tries to get a fix.”

Ap­ple and Google face some smaller com­pe­ti­tion from open source al­ter­na­tives like OpenStreet­Map, where data is fed in by a com­mu­nity of users. But the scale of the tech­nol­ogy be­he­moths makes com­pe­ti­tion dif­fi­cult.

The use of ex-mil­i­tary tech is now fun­da­men­tal in how we nav­i­gate and view the world.

More than a bil­lion peo­ple use Google Maps ev­ery month, with mil­lions more us­ing Ap­ple’s plat­form.

But their views aren’t al­ways re­flected by the tech in­dus­try. Pales­tine is recog­nised by 136 mem­bers of the United Na­tions as an in­de­pen­dent state, but it is not in the US – which is home to both Ap­ple and Google.

Whether or not it was their in­ten­tion, the un­com­fort­able truth re­mains that the world’s big­gest tech firms have an out­sized power on the way the planet is viewed.

And the likes of Madonna are sure to con­tinue in­ter­ven­ing.

‘GPS isn’t a great tech­nol­ogy for hu­mans be­cause it was de­signed to lo­cate a tank in a bat­tle­field’

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