Self-driving cars require insanely detailed maps in order to function. But, as The Drive’s Stephen Edelstein writes, “The Chinese government is blocking foreign companies from mapping its roads in great detail, according to a Financial Times report. The restrictions, which reportedly do not apply to Chinese firms, are being instituted in the name of national security. China is concerned about spying.” Mapping, geotagging, geographic surveys—all of these have been subject to Chinese government restrictions for many years (recall the trouble Google Maps has had operating in China), so this is more of an additional data point than an actual surprise. [Boing Boing/PC Mag]
Czech Railways (České dráhy) have pulled its upcoming annual diary from circulation because it includes a sensitive map of Europe, the Lidové nivony reports (in Czech; Google Translate). The map, created by Kartografie Praha, shows Crimea, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia as disputed regions and marks the territory held by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Apparently afraid of offending ambassadors and business partners, the railways is holding some 5,000 copies of the diary in a warehouse. [Maps on the Web]
A Czech publisher has managed to get itself entangled in the dispute over how to map Israel and Palestine, with a school atlas that showed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (which Palestinians dispute). The Palestinian ambassador protested; the Czech education ministry relented—which enraged the Israelis, until the Czech education ministry reversed itself again. This is one of those situations where a neutral map is impossible: each option pisses off the other side. As Google found out about Crimea, it isn’t always enough to show the “right” map to the right people.
Because Palestine, after all, has been removed. It is there on old paper maps, of the Holy Land, of the Roman and Ottoman empires, of the British mandate. Yet in our digital age, a search on Google Maps for Israel produces a map without Palestine. It displays Israeli urban centres down to a few thousand inhabitants, and even marks Ma’ale Adumin, an Israeli settlement on the occupied West Bank. At the same time it shows no Palestinian place-names or urban centres, not even major ones like Gaza City, Khan Yunis or Nablus. The dotted, inconsistent borders of the occupied territories leave the impression that they are not claimed or administered by anyone. […]
Historians of cartography have long studied the practices and consequences of cartographic omission. In a landmark study, “New England cartography and the Native Americans”, published posthumously in 1994, the British historian of cartography J. B. Harley analysed seventeenth-century maps to follow the progressive replacement of the Native Americans with European settlers. In Harley’s analysis, the maps were something more than historical records of that process. Because they made the colonists visible at the expense of the indigenous population, they were also instruments of colonial legitimisation.
Many colonial mapmakers preferred to leave the areas of predominantly indigenous presence blank, rather than to reproduce an indigenous geography; one example is Herman Moll’s 1729 map of New England and the adjacent colonies, seen above. The traces of indigenous presence, past and present, were gradually removed from the maps as the colonists pushed west. The apparent emptiness helped to justify the settlers’ sense that they had discovered a virgin territory, promised to them by Providence. The pattern was the same in all areas of colonial activity, including Australia and Africa.
As the Disputed Territories site, which catalogues how Google manages various contested borders, points out, “Google’s maps of disputed territories differ depending on who’s looking at them.” As we’ve seen recently with regard to Crimea, that doesn’t always keep Google out of trouble. An online petition asking Google to label Palestine on Google Maps has garnered more than 300,000 signatures since March. The petitioners accuse Google of removing Palestine at Israel’s insistence; but, as the Guardian reports, “the truth is, it was never labelled by Google in the first place.” (The West Bank and Gaza Strip had their labels removed by a bug; Google’s restoring them.)
The swiftness of the backlash, though, is not just about the wish for justice on behalf of an occupied people, but about the belief—now punctured—that our technology is neutral, that it presents an unbiased, infallible version of the world. […]
While it might seem imperialistic for Google to decide how the US should see the rest of the world, perhaps it would be equally troubling to see the company wade into global verdicts on the righteousness of every international occupation. That it allows its sketch of the geopolitical climate to reflect the perspective of who is viewing it, rather than impose the prevailing popular opinion in the west, may not be neutral or unbiased, but it is probably the most fair.
Writing for The Wire, Sumandro Chattapadhyay and Adya Garg discuss the recent Indian draft bill that proposes fines and jail terms for publishing a map that shows the “incorrect” Indian borders. They provide some background, setting out the government’s past history of trying to regulate maps of India, and point out some flaws in the proposal:
The regulatory measures proposed by the bill do not only cause worry but also bewilderment. Take for example Section 3 that states that ‘no person shall acquire geospatial imagery or data including value addition of any part of India’ without being expressly given permission for the same or being vetted by the nodal agency set up by the Bill. If implemented strictly, this may mean that you will have to ask for permission and/or security vetting before dropping a pin on the map and sharing your coordinates with your friend or a taxi service. Both involve creating/acquiring geospatial information, and potentially adding value to the map/taxi service as well.
Let’s take an even more bizarre hypothetical situation—the Security Vetting Agency being asked to go through the entire geospatial data chest of Google everyday (or as soon as it is updated) and it taking up to ‘ three months from the date of receipt’ of the data to complete this checking so that Google Maps can tell you how crowded a particular street was three months ago.
The government of India has long been obsessed with maps that failed to show its official and “correct” borders—i.e., maps that showed the Pakistan-controlled parts of Jammu and Kashmir as part of Pakistan, or Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin and Chinese-claimed Arunachal Pradesh as part of China. Maps for an international audience that showed the de facto situation on the ground rather than the Indian claim have been censored at the border. Now things have escalated: a draft bill proposes drastic penalties: up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to Rs 100 crore (about $15 million U.S.; 1 crore = 10 million) for publishing a map or geospatial data with the “wrong” boundaries. News coverage: Hindustani Times, Quartz India, Washington Post. [Stefan Geens/WMS]
The problem with Google Maps becoming a de facto cartographic authority is that it isn’t a legal authority. As we have seen over and over again, this has implications, both for Google, which must often walk a fine line between countries’ cartographic demands (for example, China and India have laws mandating “correct” borders on maps that are mutually exclusive; the border Google shows you depends on where you are), and for Google’s users: a 2010 border skirmish between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was triggered by an error in Google Maps. A discussion of that incident begins Ethan R. Merel’s note published in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, which explores the problem of Google being thrust into a role it may not have expected.
Since Google is now producing the world’s most important maps, a task previously done by nation-states, the company is “getting confused with a nation-state, and not just any one, a really important one—a powerful one.”92 At first, Google reaped the benefits of waning state control over the practice of map making, but more recently, Google has started to face the criticism and responsibilities which accompany such possession of power.93