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