The tricky politics of mapping in the digital age

Michael Cogley
·6 min read
The Earth with barbed wire around it (illustration)
The Earth with barbed wire around it (illustration)

"Put Palestine back on the map," demanded Madonna after sharing screenshots of both Apple and Google’s maps with her more than 15 million followers on Instagram.

The singer had picked up on a viral post that claimed the Silicon Valley titans had recently decided to drop one of the world’s most-ferociously disputed areas from their maps.

In reality, Apple and Google hadn’t removed Palestine, because a label for the area was never included on either app. And yet both companies have received messages from Palestine’s minister of foreign affairs Riyad Al Maliki, according to local reports.

The row provided a fascinating insight into one of the prickly side-effects that comes with being the world’s de-facto atlases.

Google’s mapping business has become an increasingly lucrative source of income, estimated to generate around $3.6bn a year by next year, according to RBC analysts. But while data-mining and hyper-accurate advertising has showered Silicon Valley with riches, such practices are also dragging some of tech’s biggest names into political rows in border regions.

“Mapping location data is fundamentally strategic,” says Simon Greenman, co-founder of MapQuest, a company that boasted the ability to print out directions before being sold to AOL in a billion dollar deal in 1999.

He says that mapping can be monetised with advertising and the more a company knows about a user's location "the more money you can make".

In the case of Apple however, the company insists it does not make money through advertising or targeting user behaviour. Chief executive Tim Cook repeatedly states that users are "not our product".

Greenman, now a director at advisory firm Best Practice AI, says it’s not the job of tech firms 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 have been spilled over a decades-long dispute, Indian users get a different 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 described 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.

Crimean bridge map
Crimean bridge map

“In the past, we’ve had states looking after their own mapping – now we’ve got a situation where multinational corporations are doing it,” says Dr 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 where 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 that of what mapping was traditionally used for, like defence and taxation.

The reader in cartography at the 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.”

Policy manager at Access Partnership Tiernan Kenny agrees, suggesting that the tech companies are involved in more than what they may have first thought 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,” he says.

According to Google, the company remains neutral on geopolitical disputes. The tech giant 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 lands 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 they could not show it to us, but use a different type of line, for example. It would mean something different.”

Online mapping as we know it 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 Noughties. The app was eventually scooped up by Google and eventually turned into what we know as Google Earth in 2004.

Breaking out satellite imagery to consumers has brought with it a host of controversies around places and things appearing on Google Earth that perhaps shouldn’t be there, such as military sites. In 2015, it was reported the location of Taiwan’s Patriot defence missiles appeared on Google’s mapping service.

Satellite imagery is just one of many military technologies that have made it into the hands of everyday consumers.

“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 take 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 the data is fed in by a community of users. But the scale of the tech giants makes competing in the space 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 giants. Palestine is recognised by 136 members of the United Nations as an independent state, but it is not in the US – 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 out-sized power on the way the world is viewed.