The dangers of Google’s cartography adventure

Google gradually emerged as one of the world’s prime cartographers. Due to its profit-oriented nature, Google discriminates some countries and spares others. This inevitably distorts reality.

Google gradually emerged as one of the world’s prime cartographers. Due to its profit-oriented nature, Google discriminates some countries and spares others. This inevitably distorts reality.


Last year I visited the British Library’s special exhibition, labelled “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line”. It offered fascinating insights and new angles into the historic process of map-making, but also for the analysis of certain developments in world history. Nevertheless, I caught myself thinking that with today’s technologies, a handful of people are probably easily able to take on the tasks (and skills) of the vast majority of the cartographers’ work presented in this exhibition. In fact, only five years into the 21st century, a company named “Google” set out draw the lines of the present and the future, by virtually assuming the role of the principal modern-day cartographer as I will argue. The U.S.-American Internet technology tycoon launched less than ten years into its existence its very own web mapping service on February 8, 2005 called “Google Maps”. Ever since then it assumed a pioneering role in revolutionary developments in web-based Cartography, leading authors such as Garfield (2013) to conclude that Google Maps has brought about the greatest revolution in Cartography “since the Great Library of Alexandria opened for business around 330 BC” (Garfield, 2013, p.425).

What started off at Google as an advanced search engine for websites on the World Wide Web, soon turned into a more ambitious project “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google Company, n.d.). This aspiration also encompassed the task of mapping the world (and even parts of the universe, with Google Earth allowing for the exploration of the universe). Mapping the world is, however, a very political act. “Maps categorize, define, arrange, locate, designate and thereby (re-) produce certain conceptions of the world. They affect our thinking and acting and are in this sense powerful” (Glasze, 2009, p.181). Although some authors suggested that the scientific discipline of post-World War II Cartography managed to make the difficult transformation from the propagandist and ideology-driven mapping prior to and during the war, to a post-political neutral drawing of maps, modern Critical Cartography has greatly debunked this transformation as a myth, arguing that mapping as a discipline (like in fact many other disciplines) failed to ever become post-political (Crampton, 2010, p.3). Google, a private Internet company, thus became both willingly or unwillingly and knowingly or unknowingly a major political stakeholder. This is insofar of special interest as “[c]artography, toponymy (how places are named) and the authority to recognize the sovereignty of other political entities has traditionally fallen to those people and groups holding political power” (Bogen, 2016), not private companies, which tended to have little significant impact on the domain. Almost every country on the other hand has been engaged in Cartography by means of their national mapping agencies and so has the UN with its Geospatial Information Section.

A short history of Google’s mapping services

The journey of Google’s mapping services really started off in the years of 2004 and 2005. After having acquired a basic mapping software programme by an Australian company as well as a U.S.-based geospatial data visualisation company in October 2004, Google Maps went online on February 8, 2005 with Google Earth following shortly afterwards, a service downloaded more than a billion times already (Crampton, 2010, p.27; Google Timeline, n.d.). The company has ever since Google Maps’ inception gradually incorporated more of their own technologies, but also strengthened its network through a number of collaborations (including i.e. with NASA [Kaufman, 2006]) or mapping related acquisitions (including huge investments such as the takeover of an Israeli GPS navigation software programme for a reported $ 966 millions [Empson, 2013]). These enormous investments by a private company seem to be explicable only if one considers Google’s potential for making a profit.

As of today, Google has seven branches or services with more than one billion monthly users, Google Maps being one of the earlier ones to have reached this threshold in the past (Lardinois, 2016). “Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the products are already working together to make money. For example, even though Google Maps doesn’t really make money on its own, it makes mobile search better, and a lot of Google’s revenue comes from mobile search” (D’Onfro, 2015). That is where Google’s API (Application Programming Interface) comes into play; a method/tool allowing basically everybody to use Google’s maps on one’s website, while allowing certain adjustments to be made, such as setting pins in order to help users finding a specific location. Launched in June 2005 there are today 1 million active websites and apps using the API, reaching 1 billion people every week” (Google Timeline, n.d.).

Ever-new developments and technologies incorporated into the programme strengthened Google’s capabilities significantly. May 2007 saw the implementation of Google Street View, giving the user access to panoramic 3D-views of cities and landscapes. In 2009 navigation, including real-time-traffic and public transport, was added (Google Timeline, n.d.). The most recent additions are no less impressive and a display of what modern Cartography is capable of. Google Timelapse shows (sometimes human-made, most often at least human-influenced) changes to our earth over a period of 28 years, by using Landsat satellite imagery in short animations of iconic places such as the Arctic or the Amazon Rain Forest (Google Earth Engine, n.d.). A similar 2014 Google Maps and Street View update allows users to go back in time until the year 2007, exploring selected cities almost like a time traveller, adding to a deepening historical perspective of the programme.

Everybody is a potential cartographer now

The certainly exciting and impressive short journey as presented up until today was however everything but smooth. The geopolitical implications and faux pas Google quite necessarily had to deal with are especially interesting. It was already indicated that “the company probably didn’t foresee the extent of challenges it would face once it waded into the politically contentious conversations about borders and geographic labeling” (Bogen, 2016). The fact that laypersons can, since 2008, contribute to a limited extent towards an ever-advanced and nuanced Google map through Google Map Maker and by suggesting modifications directly within the programme, naturally involves further risks. Google Chief Technology Officer Michael Jones, however, reinforced this approach in 2007 by stating that “instead of just [.] experts talking to each other, or experts making maps for regular people; regular people are talking to each other and they’re making maps for each other. And that’s very important.” (Jones, cited in Crampton, 2010, p.25). Even the former Vice-president of Engineering at Google, responsible for, inter alia, Google Maps and Earth did not consider himself to be a cartographer (Garfield, 2013, p.427). Considering Critical Cartography’s assumption “that maps make reality as much as they represent it” (Crampton, 2010, p.18 [emphasis in original]), one might imagine that the potential risks such a “deprofessionalization” (ibid., p.34) and “democratization” (ibid., p.37) of mapmaking include, would seem apparent. The following challenges along the road, however, seem to suggest that these risks were either not recognized (which I doubt) or deliberately taken.

No such thing as one Google Map

 The Crimea case

Attentive observers might have come across stories of discrepancies in different versions of Google Maps in the past few years, most notably since the aftermath of the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (henceforth: Crimea) in 2014 (Bogen, 2016; Hern, 2014; Taylor, 2016). If one accesses the international version of Google Maps, as was done in figure 1, Crimea is clearly shown as a disputed region between Russia and Ukraine, represented by the dashed line that separates it from the rest of Ukraine. Figures 2 and 3 on the contrary show the region’s representation on Google Maps when accessed from Russia and Ukraine respectively, then being indicated as belonging to Russia and Ukraine respectively. In a statement by a Google representative he explained that the

“Google Maps team is doing its best to objectively mark disputed regions and landmarks. In relevant cases the borders of disputed areas are marked in a special way. In countries where we have a localized version of our service, we follow local laws on representing borders and use of landmark names” (Anurova, cited in Russia Today, 2014)

The Crimea controversy gained attention once again in the summer of 2016, when Google, in response “to a ‘de-communization’ law passed by Ukraine’s parliament in April 2015, which called for a removal of Soviet symbols and names from Ukrainian territory” (Taylor, 2016), changed several Crimean street names on both the Ukrainian and Russian version of Google, eradicating Soviet-era names. After extensive Russian economic pressure, Google swiftly brought back the original names in both versions (Taylor, 2016; The Moscow Times, 2016). “If Google so casually ignores Russian legislation on names of settlements, it will be very difficult for the company to conduct business on Russian territory” (Nikiforov, cited in The Moscow Times, 2016), Russia’s Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov was quoted.


fig. 1. Crimea as seen from the international version of Google Maps with dashed line indicating a disputed territory (Screenshot, 2016)


fig. 2. Crimea as seen from the Russian version of Google Maps, clearly separated from Ukrainian territory (Screenshot, 2016)


fig. 3. Crimea as seen from the Ukrainian version of Google Maps with no visible separation from its territory (Screenshot, 2016)

The Kashmir case

A similar, no less controversial, case of unequal representation on Google Maps can be found far southeast of Crimea, revolving around the lengthy and heated dispute over the mountainous and water-rich region of Jammu and Kashmir (henceforth: Kashmir) between India and Pakistan. Interestingly however, whereas the region of Kashmir, when accessed from the Indian version of Google Maps, is displayed as an undisputed part of India (figure 4), Pakistan does not even have its own version of Google Maps and users are therefore redirected to the international version of Google Maps, which displays the region of Kashmir as disputed territory.


fig. 4. The whole of Kashmir as an undisputed part of India as seen from the Indian version of Google Maps (Screenshot from


fig. 5. Kashmir displayed as a disputed region (including border disputes with China) as seen from the international version of Google Maps (Screenshot from

The map on the Indian version of Google Maps is often justified through its legal commitments due to India’s Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1961, which prohibits maps that “question the territorial integrity of frontiers of India in a manner prejudicial to the interests of safety and security of India” (Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1961). But then again, what justifies the non-existence of a Pakistani Google Maps version, even though Pakistan has its own Google domain and search engine?

The Cyprus Case

As this discrepancy in the form of so-called Primary Local Usage Policy caught my attention, I decided to do some further research and found that out of the 196 regions (including own domains for regions that are not [yet] recognised as sovereign states by the UN such as i.e. Norfolk Island, Palestine or Isle of Man) with their own Google domain, 17 do not have their own Google Maps version. These 17 regions or states include small, for Google possibly unimportant markets such as Norfolk Island, but also big, long-/well-established countries like Afghanistan, Cyprus, Vietnam, Suriname or many of the Balkan and Caucasus countries. A quick crosscheck with an extensive list of disputed territories around the world, soon disclosed that all UN-recognized countries (in contrast to small regions such as Norfolk Island) that are not in possession of their own Google Maps version, find themselves currently involved in a major territorial dispute with a neighbouring state (Metrocosm, 2015). Importantly however, differences in population of rival counterparts thereby seem to have an influence on whether none, both or only one country possesses its own Google Maps version. Whereas none of the relatively sparsely populated countries of Armenia (3 million inhabitants) and Azerbaijan (9.8m), and both the populous Ukraine (44.2m) and Russia (142.4m) have their own version of Google Maps, the Turkey-Cyprus conflict over the Northern part of Cyprus results in an own version for populous Turkey (80.3m), and a redirection to the international version for the users of sparsely-populated (1.2m) Cyprus (figures 6 and 7). Similarly, the vast population of India (1.3 billion) seems to outweigh populous Pakistan (202m).


fig. 6. Cyprus as seen from the international Google Maps version (Screenshot from


fig. 7. Cyprus as seen from the Turkish version of Google Maps, still with a disputed (dashed) line but including the labelling of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state only recognised by Turkey (Screenshot from

Considering that after Google’s expansion in the years of 2007/08, the company today has “70 offices in more than 40 countries around the globe” (Google Company, n.d. b), Bogen’s (2016) assumption that it “wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the Primary Local Usage policy was meant partly to help Google establish and retain legitimacy in new markets that might disagree about borders or sovereignty” (ibid.) seems to resonate very well with the presented examples.

Accountability questions


fig. 8. Close-up of Google’s offices in Europe, the Middle East and Central/South Asia (Google Company, n.d. b)

Figure 8 displays some of the 70 Google offices around the world. The preceding analysis of obstacles and discrepancies faced by Google has, from a neutral point of view, unveiled, disadvantages for inter alia Cyprus or Pakistan in contrast to advantages for Turkey and India and neither of both for Ukraine and Russia. Rather unsurprisingly, the beneficent countries do not only have a far greater population relatively to their counterparts, but Google also runs at least one office in each of the beneficiaries’ countries and not a single one in any of the disadvantaged ones. The data for these cases thus unambiguously suggests that Google opportunistically and economically self-serving follows the capitalistic interests it has in populous growth markets.

This naturally raises certain questions of accountability. Nikesh Aurora, Google’s Head of European Operations once admitted, “We try not to have too many controls. People will do what they think are in the interests of the company” (Aurora, cited in Cleland, 2011). And Scott Cleland, one of Google’s most vocal critics argued that “[r]ather than preventing security problems from happening, Google relies on others to report security problems and then they generally fix them after-the-fact” (Cleland, 2011). This is an eminently dangerous attitude in Cartography, where boundaries and toponyms tend to become sacrosanct rather quickly (van Houtum, 2005). Yet, one must never forget that Google is a private, win-oriented company that, like any other company, is entitled to exclude any warranties and publish any sort of disclaimer for all its products and services as far as they comply with U.S. law. Google’s accountability to U.S. or foreign domestic law as a private entity is therefore very limited. None of its users, neither governments nor private citizens, should therefore fall for the fallacy that information displayed on Google Maps must be correct. Considering that Google has not only the power to “show the entire world, but also [.] the power not show it; it ha[s] the power to control information in ways that the most crazed eighteenth-century European despot could only dream about” (Garfield, 2013, p.428), further bolsters this argument.

In his book “Rethinking the power of maps”, Wood (2010) suggested that the state’s stranglehold on the map is weakening and the genie of Internet mapping “seems to be very much out of the bottle” (ibid., p.38). The international community of states thus seems to be confronted with two possible options. The first, very unlikely one (considering Google’s market dominance), is to somehow regain the dominance over map-making again. The second (and far more realistic) option would be to accept Google’s private sector market dominance, but hold the company accountable for as many of their “Cartography adventures” as possible. The cessation of Google’s Primary Local Usage Policy, which effectively creates artificial and multiple realities that do not reflect the facts on the ground should thereby be the primary target in order to move towards one shared map, rather than a smorgasbord of different (Google) maps (Note the plural in the application’s name “Google Maps“. Was it ever intended to represent one joint map of the world?)


The enormous capabilities as well as the market dominance Google and its mapping services have attained throughout the past twelve years are astonishing. Yet it is clear that Google faced many challenges “once it waded into the politically contentious conversations about borders and geographic labeling” (Bogen, 2016). Google’s apparent misconception of the political sensitivity of boundaries and lack of transparency dealing with such issues are alarming. Its influence on domestic opinion-forming processes due to its market dominance is however undeniable and tremendously relevant. The Primary Local Usage Policy, which i.e. provides Indian, Russian or Turkish Google users with the maps their respective governments want them to see, is thereby the main accountability problem, which portrays a purely win-oriented/capitalist picture of Google rather than the one the company envisages of itself as the universal, independent and democratic provider of information. The international community of states will not be able to regain its influence on map-making for the broad public and should therefore work and strive, together with Google, to promote the usage of one international (globalized) version of Google Maps everywhere. While sensitivities in toponymy should be taken into consideration (i.e. by displaying all possible names), disputed regions need to be displayed as what they are, disputed regions!




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