Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Google Maps: Virtual Land Grabs and ‘Google Recognition’

Considering the Ilemi Triangle for two previous Menas Borders pieces, it was interesting to note its treatment in Google Maps (Map 1). Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan all make territorial claims to the Triangle while Kenya is the state that polices and de facto administers the territory. This notwithstanding, it is important to note that there has never been any cession of territory by the state with the recognised de jure territorial claim, Sudan.

Map 1: The Ilemi Triangle at – Retrieved 19 January 2011

Google’s treatment of Ilemi is perhaps indicative of its responses to the problems represented by the ‘symbology’ of territorial borders. (As noted in a Google blog, border position and image resolution are two other problematic areas.) Google argues that it has attempted to address the qualitative aspects of positional and territorial disputes and that its concern with symbology involves the recognition that territorial disputes and settlements do not represent any static horizon. Their evolution, it is argued, means that Google has to use a degree of nuance in its depiction of territorial borders and employ several methods to denote the uncertainty and conflict that surrounds the site, and even mere existence, of many territorial borders.

The current line used in Google Maps to denote the northern extent of Ilemi is seemingly based on the 1938 Wakefield Line. Wakefield is a revision of the 1931 Red Line that was never intended to delimit an international boundary. Indeed, the sole official boundary, recognised in 1914, is that surveyed by Captain Maud’s expedition in 1902. So the function of Wakefield was to show the extent of Kenyan administration upon the territory of colonial Sudan, its condominium government having afforded its Kenyan counterpart a ‘right of hot pursuit’ across the international boundary in 1928.

For its part, the 1938 extension of Wakefield was drawn in order to accommodate more adequately the transhumant grazing patterns of the Turkana people. This extension has, of course, suited Kenyan interests well and has provided the basis for the claim that is still exercised by Kenyan governments. However, as far as I can tell, no Kenyan government has made any application, to any authority, for a formal transfer of territory other than in 1967. At this point, after independence, Kenyatta’s government sought British intervention in support of the cession of the Triangle to Kenya. For a variety of reasons—perhaps because of the waning British influence, or maybe the formulation of the 1964 OAU declaration on the sacrosanctity of territorial borders (itself consistently flouted by Kenya in its practice on Ilemi)—nothing came of this. Since, other pressures—most obviously a number of armed conflicts—have meant that the matter remains unresolved and the de facto control of the Triangle territory preserved, however informally. But by excluding the 1914 Line Google Maps ‘silences’ the only internationally recognised boundary. In so doing it reinforces the tenuous Kenyan claim to the Triangle and the Red/Wakefield Line as an international boundary which it is certainly not. Google Maps in effect performs its own geopolitical action by silencing Maud’s line and performing a virtual territorial grab on the part of Kenya.

So how far has Google Maps come to represent a proxy for international recognition of a border? It could not be argued that ‘Google recognition’ has arrived to supplant the mechanisms of public international law since Google Maps’ launch in 2005 and yet Google Maps does serve to reinforce particular interests. It does so through perhaps nothing more than the sources of its data (including, for example, the US State Department). Particular cartographies serve particular policies, privileged interests and parties to alliances; so the Google Maps data cannot be regarded as authoritative or impartial statements on the authentic positionality of territorial borders. It can do little more than privilege the interpretation of the source which, if needs be, is to the cost of international law. (The positions adopted by the US toward Kenya and Sudan might prove instructive in this sense, but there is no space for consideration of that here.) The point is, then, that the Google Maps is a powerful tool which, given its accessibility, has the capacity to gain a measure of seeming-legitimacy and penetrate the geopolitical imaginations of those who, in the best of faith, consume its depictions of space. On this view Google has a responsibility that must extend further than simply tailoring the depiction of particular disputed borders according to the location of an IP address.

Perhaps this is to overstate the case. Nonetheless, it is to show that supposed objectivity counts for little and that uncertainty over a territorial disposition counts for far more when it is only partially reproduced in Google’s software. Indeed, it is a testament to the legitimacy that Google Maps now seems to bestow upon these dispositions that governments are seemingly prepared to act militarily where and when a virtual territorial grab may be construed as threatening the interests of states. One such example is in the recent Nicaraguan incursion into Costa Rican territory (October 2010), although this orthodox interpretation arguably neglects the background to the incident: the commander of the Nicaraguan military unit perhaps refers to Google Maps to explain a Nicaraguan mistake rather than truly stake a claim to territory. Indeed, Google admitted to a mistake, blaming incorrect data supplied by the US State Department; perhaps there is the risk of unfairly vilifying Google in this case. Nonetheless the dispute still escalated, the Nicaraguans subsequently claiming, in something of an about-turn, the validity of the Google map. The ICJ ruling that put a formal end to the territorial dispute in 2009 relied heavily on the Canas-Jerez Treaty (1858) which, especially in an era of sophisticated mapping and cartographic technologies, can only contain manifold ambiguities and inspire a variety of competing interpretations. Perhaps Google’s failing—which is only the equivalent of that of any archival hermeneut of treaties and the associated geographical information—is that it cannot itself act as the arbiter of objectivity, truth and coherence, a status to which it is perhaps popularly elevated by consequence of its accessibility and ready availability. So perhaps the important question is how the Google Maps interpretation—which, Google having parted ways from its private partner, Tele Atlas, is derived from government data sources—has become the dominant interpretation.

This month Tajikistan’s lower house of parliament ratified a border agreement with China. This must still be ratified by the Tajik Senate but the agreement would end a dispute that dates back to the nineteenth century and result in a significant transfer of territory (1,000 sq km to China and 27,500 sq km to Tajikistan). Controversy surrounds the agreement and its ratification: rumours have circulated as to the extent of the territorial transfer, parliamentary deputies have claimed to have been unaware of the agreement (made in 2002) until the last few weeks, others have claimed that any transfer represents a violation of the Tajik constitution or a diplomatic defeat despite the limited proportion (c. 1%) of Tajik territory affected. Given this uncertainty perhaps it is fortunate that Google, however inadvertently, has effectively hedged its bets (see Map 2). The data with which it has drawn its dotted, equivocal border is seemingly far vaguer in terms of image resolution than is the Bing Maps equivalent (Map 3). (Bing is Microsoft’s equivalent service which did, interestingly enough, have the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border in the usual location.)

Map 2: The China-Tajikistan border at – Retrieved 19 January 2011

Map 3: The China-Tajikistan border at  – Retrieved 19 January 2011

Above all, therefore, it is perhaps only due to the considerable weight, high profile and accessibility of Google Maps that it has become the focus of ire over the last few years and as other services emerge to challenge its dominance the picture may only become more uncertain with the addition of different sources and interpretation. In the meantime, Google Maps must persevere in its concerns with symbology, positionality and image resolution in order to address the contingency and dynamism of the territorial dispositions that it has chosen to relay. We should also be wary of parties using the ambiguities of these maps, vilifying Google and its sources in the process, in justifying their actions, and journalistic sources jumping on the bandwagon in speaking of ‘21st Century War’.

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