By Kathryn Schiller Wurster
Copyright © 2012 Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
Frank Jacobs, his author bio says, “writes about cartography, but only the interesting bits.” And his February 28 post on the New York Times “Borderlines” blog—dedicated to “the stories behind the global map”—is interesting indeed. “Did Google Maps almost cause a war in 2010,” he asks?
Jacobs raises the specter of a web-inspired border war. One example came in November 2010 when Nicaraguan officials justified an incursion into neighboring Costa Rican territory by referring to a borderline indicated on Google Maps. “The digital atlas,” Jacobs writes,“had indeed placed the eastern end of the border between the countries to the south of the generally accepted line, providing Nicaragua with a territorial gain of a few square miles.”
Google, of course, has no legal or political authority to establish or change international boundaries. “Yet, by virtue of its ubiquity,” Jacobs continues,“Google is often the arbiter of first recourse for borders and toponyms…Costa Rica protested, to both Nicaragua and Google Maps.”
Google blamed the State Department, the source of its data in this case, and made the change. However, the problem remains—Nicaragua left its troops in place and Costa Rica responded by sending police to the border (Costa Rica doesn’t have a standing army). According to Jacobs, the issue still has not been resolved and could flare up again.
And this was not the first time that Google has virtually stumbled over border disputes. Similar arguments have arisen over Google’s cartography in Cambodia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Japan, Morocco, India, and even the demure, unguarded border between Germany and the Netherlands.
An earlier New York Times story on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica dispute argued that the Google Maps depicted borderline was merely a pretext in an ongoing border dispute, which had most recently landed in the International Court of Justice. As Ogle Earth, a blog that focuses on digital maps and geospatial imagery, puts it,“Nicaragua did not mistakenly enter Costa Rican territory because it relied on Google Maps. [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega’s justification for Nicaragua’s actions appeal to documents from the 19th century; [the] mention of Google Maps is just a taunt.”
Furthermore, the military action could be attributed to political maneuvering by Ortega, who was able to manipulate public opinion in an election year using the Google Maps error as a tool. Even more intriguing are Costa Rica’s allegations that Venezuela played a role in encouraging Nicaragua to dredge a new channel in the shifting San Juan River delta that defines the border. And, we don’t know why Google drew the boundary where it did—possible explanations range from guidance from the State Department to simple error.
It seems difficult to imagine a war starting over Google Maps alone, although we shouldn’t rule that out completely. What is much more feasible in the near term, however, is that public online data sources will increasingly be used as tools to influence or manipulate public opinion. Google Maps was not fully responsible for the latest flare-up, but the incident raises interesting questions about Google’s position in international relations, its responsibility to present accurate data, and, more broadly, the role of easily accessible information in public opinion, government decisions and even matters of war and peace.