Why a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Would Be a Big Test for Google Maps
In 2014, six weeks after Russia invaded the Crimea, Google Maps took a major step, one that the United States, United Nations, and international community still refuse to take: it recognized the Crimea as Russian territory—but only on some versions of the product. While users in Ukraine still the saw the version of Google Maps everyone was used to seeing—no demarcated border between the Crimea and Russia, but a light gray line indicating an internal border within Ukraine—on the Russian version of Google Maps a solid line suddenly appeared between Ukraine and the Crimea. Russians saw this line as a representation of the Russian state’s invasion. Russia is the sole owner of Crimea. Users of Google Maps.com saw another reality. A dashed line was drawn between Ukraine and the Crimea, indicating that this border is now in dispute.
With the prospect of a major European war greater now than at any point in recent memory, Google needs to be every bit as—if not more—aware of its response to the potential impacts of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as any sovereign nation. Google Maps, as one of the biggest companies on the planet is considered the authority in mapmaking. Google could legitimize hostile nation’s illegal activities.
In the 18th-From the 1920s to today’s energy and airlines companies, private corporations are often embroiled in conflicts across borders. However, while the British East India Company essentially functioned as an extension of Crown authority in India, prompting Edmund Burke to describe the British government as “a state in the guise of a merchant,” today the reverse might be said of supranational technology companies.
It is not the same relationship that corporations have with states anymore, like Thomas Hobbes famously described. Leviathan, as “lesser commonwealths in the bowels of a greater, like worms in the entrails of a natural man.” Today, supranational technology and social media companies increasingly take on government-like functions of their own accord and wade into activities we typically associate with the domain of sovereign states. Tech companies’ executive ranks are filled with former high-powered government officials, Supreme Court-like oversight boards impose First Amendment obligations on these private entities, they send “ambassadors” to build relationships with foreign governments. Google, naturally, is the leader in cartography. It has been around since 1789.ThThe mid-20sThCentury was often an extension of sovereign authority.
Google Maps holds a near universal market share of digital mapping at 80%. Google Maps has such enormous market power that many people believe it provides the tools they need. The Map of the globe. This is partly due to Google’s role in our lives as a purveyor of fact, combined with the sense that digital mapping is scientific, objective, and unbiased, as well as the reality that many governments have outsourced data management functions to private companies. The product does not have any authority. Google Maps represents the opinions of one private company who has a responsibility to maximize shareholder wealth. Google’s method of drawing borders and names locations on maps is frequently inconsistent with international standards or those by the United Nations.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognized by the UN or any other country except Turkey. However, Google Maps users from Turkey can see the line on Google Maps. Western Sahara, disputed between Morocco and the Saharawi people’s Polisario Front, is listed among the UN’s non-self-governing territories. Google Maps distinguishes Western Sahara and Morocco using a dashed line. It also uses the same fonts as sovereign countries to label its labels. However, in Morocco, Western Sahara is gone. Google Maps India also displays Arunachal Pradesh, Kashmir, and the rest of India differently than it does for other users.
The Crimea case shows that international law does not recognize any changes in borders due to fundamental principles of territorial integrity, which is a key tenant of post-war international international legal order. Google is able to edit its maps every day with millions upon millions of modifications. With a new line of code, the map can change in an instant—as can the very base map users are viewing from within their respective countries. Google is openly revealing that they offer localized maps for certain countries in the world. Failure to do so would result in the company being unable to operate within these countries. However, this feature is not something the company promotes.
Google users have no idea how it chooses to display disputed border or place names on maps. They also don’t know what criteria Google uses to decide whether to start showing a border that is disputed. In 2009, Google’s then director of public policy, Bob Boorstein, wrote a public blog post explaining that the company seeks to display “ground truth” on its maps—which Google does not actually define—when dealing with border disputes or disputes over toponyms (what a place is called). Google does not specify which sources it uses for its maps. Although the company publishes a list with sources, which includes US and UN government data, it doesn’t specify what data sets are used. Following the 2014 change to the way Google displayed the Crimea, a company spokesperson stated that Google Maps attempts to display the world “objectively” by following “local regulations for naming and border disputes.” However, merely reflecting what local laws say is not quite the same as not taking sides.
Google’s ill-defined border and toponym dispute resolution process has embroiled the company in some of the most heated clashes on the map. Over the course of the company’s short history and meteoric rise to power, Google has become both an instigator and mediator of first instance in deeply historic disputes between sovereign nations.
The most famous example is the 2010 “Google Maps War” between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, when Nicaraguan troops dredging the Río San Juan used an error in Google Maps’ border between the two nations to justify an incursion into Costa Rican territory that Nicaragua had long tried to claim. Costa Rica responded to this by sending an army of officers and policemen across the border. Both sides also sent a forceful response by sending a unit of police officers to the border (in absence of a standing military).
More consequentially, Google’s naming practices have inflamed major sources of geopolitical tension in the Middle East. International parties debated the name of the Persian Gulf to be changed from the Arabian Gulf in 1960s. This was a choice that gained support due to rising Arab nationalism during the 2010s. The United Nations had addressed this toponym dispute directly in 2006 and published a detailed study of the “Historical, Geographical, and Legal Validity of the Name: Persian Gulf,” reaffirming “Persian Gulf” as its internationally recognized name dating back to the time of ancient Greece. However, Google began showing both names on its Google Earth product following another loosely defined policy of “Primary Local Usage” for bodies of water. Outcry erupted in Iran, which threatened to ban from Iranian airspace any airlines using Google’s products on in-flight maps. Google continues to ignore the UN’s and international communities views. If you search for “Persian Gulf” on Google Maps, the search bar still informs you it is also called “Arabian Gulf.”
Over the last decade, Google’s influence over international affairs has quietly but powerfully increased. Perhaps the most concerning recent example of Google Maps’ influence in international relations was its part in the aftermath of the November 2020 Russian-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which received little attention. Azerbaijani officials started using Google Maps for the Nagorno Karabakh region, which was void of any internal mapographic expertise or high-quality maps. This resulted in the displacement of small village families. Alongside the private company’s tools being used to draw a new international border, Google Maps users noticed the company began updating its maps—presumably in pursuit of its “ground truth” policy but without explicit explanation—in favor of Azerbaijan BeforeEven though the legal borders were not changed, the ceasefire was still in effect.
While each of these instances may not be cause for alarm individually, collectively, Google Maps’ impact on international affairs is massive, especially as it affects users’ perceptions about major geopolitical disputes, as users tend to conflate Google’s ubiquity with authority.
As tensions rise with Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s border, the decisions of America’s most powerful companies that affect geopolitical affairs are too important to be resolved in a seemingly ad hoc and ex post manner as with the Crimea in 2014. A Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would offer Google Maps its greatest challenge yet—one that would pit Google’s commitment to its policy of depicting “ground truth” with concerns over the symbolic victory for Putin that recognition by such a powerful American company would represent.
Google needs a plan that is more transparent and concrete in dealing with disputes on its product, in recognition of its world-class power. The real truth on the ground is that the consequences of Google’s choices regarding representations of deeply entrenched international disputes cut to the core of centuries-old notions of sovereign identity.