Most maps published by the Canadian government, including the poster-sized map I have on my wall, claim a vast tract of the Arctic Ocean, all the way up to the North Pole—basically everything east of 141 degrees west longitude—as Canadian territory. The National Post’s Tristin Hopper argues that this is a mistake. Canada doesn’t even officially claim that (briskly melting) expanse of ice.
The incorrect Canadian maps are all based on the old-fashioned “sector theory” of claiming the Arctic. Back when the Arctic Ocean was largely an inaccessible chunk of ice that swallowed explorers, polar nations were generally content with dividing it up like the slices of a pizza that had the North Pole at its centre. […]
Nevertheless, while various expansionist Canadian politicians have enthusiastically touted some version of the sector theory over the years, it has never been officially adopted as Canadian policy.
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.
As is often the case with disputed boundaries, what online maps show depends on who they’re showing it to. So when it comes to Crimea, which annexation by Russia two years ago many countries refuse to recognize (not least of which Ukraine!), Google Maps shows Crimea as Russian territory to Russian users, as Ukrainian territory to Ukrainian users, and disputed territory to everyone else. As the Washington Post reports, that didn’t stop Google from getting in trouble with Russia last month, when Google changed Crimean names in all versions of Google Maps to conform with a 2015 Ukrainian law that removed Soviet names from Ukrainian territory. Russian Crimean politicians called it “Russophobic” and “topographical cretinism,” according to the Post; by last Friday, though, the name changes had apparently been reverted. [WMS]
Part of the legend reading “between the 15th and 42nd parallels” had been erased, with ocean patterns painted over the erasure. […] Whether this is a recent defacement done to obliterate evidence that China’s historical primacy in the South China Sea is a modern fiction, or an ancient one done to eliminate an error, is a subject for further research. […] Nonetheless, several other 16th century copies of the Ricci-Li map exist in Europe, South Korea and Japan, and all display the legend intact.
To be honest, the article isn’t so much making a case as it is casting some aspersions. It has an agenda: to shoot down the argument that China’s claims to the Spratly Islands are supported by the historical record. The Ricci map—like so many other maps caught up in territorial disputes and conspiracy theories—is simply a means to an end. [WMS/Leventhal Map Center]
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