Did Google Maps cause an international border dispute?

Google Maps may take you down a wrong street occasionally, but when it comes to a country's borders, the stakes are much higher.
Google Maps may take you down a wrong street occasionally, but when it comes to a country's borders, the stakes are much higher.
©iStockphoto.com/Robert Corse

Google Maps is big. Huge. And there's one problem with being a company as massive as Google: People take you very seriously. Sometimes, Google Maps makes mistakes that don't matter much in the long run. It gives poor directions or miscalculates a distance. It has outdated satellite imagery. Most of the time those errors don't matter -- but sometimes small errors in Google Maps can lead to big consequences.

Just as the Google homepage dominated the Web search arena before it, Google Maps has become the go-to map tool for millions of Internet users all over the world since its introduction in 2005. Over the years, Google has expanded Maps to include traffic information, satellite imagery, and a wealth of information about businesses, tourist destinations and public transportation. Google Maps for Android works with the Google Navigation app to provide Android users with free GPS directions. In 2010, the mobile version of Google Maps surpassed 100 million monthly users [source: GoogleMobile].

In late 2010, Google was dragged into a border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica because its map data was cited as a reliable guideline for the border between the two countries. Google had it wrong, leading to an armed standoff at the border between the two nations. But was it really Google's fault? Not entirely.

Invasion Through Misinformation

Costa Rica and Nicaragua have a history of border disputes dating back to the 1800s. In 2009, an International Court of Justice issued a ruling on a conflict between the two countries identifying the San Juan River as the border between the two. That same river became a contested area again in 2010, when Nicaragua began dredging a section of the waterway that Costa Rica considered its territory. According to a Costa Rican newspaper, Nicaraguan general Edén Pastora cited Google Maps as justification for the Nicaraguan infringement on Costa Rican soil [source: Sutter]. Judging by Google's map, Nicaragua's troops and its dredging operation were in its own territory.

Costa Rica didn't agree, and rightly so: According to the established boundary between the two nations, Nicaragua was clearly in the wrong. The incident resulted in both sides sending security forces to the area to shore up their armed presence. Thankfully, the situation never devolved into combat. Google admitted it had made a mistake and updated Maps with data provided by the U.S. State Department [source: AFP].

Despite the map mix up, the resulting discord can't really be blamed on Google. Nicaragua used the service as an excuse, not an impetus for action. But this is not the only case of incorrect Google Maps data ruffling a few feathers.

Google Maps Isn't 100 Percent Reliable

Dollart Bay sits between Germany and the Netherlands, but there is some dispute about where the boundary between the two countries should fall within the body of water.
Dollart Bay sits between Germany and the Netherlands, but there is some dispute about where the boundary between the two countries should fall within the body of water.
Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

Google Maps covers thousands of roads in hundreds of countries across the entire globe. All of that data comes from different sources, and Google compiles everything into a (hopefully) seamless and accurate map experience [source: Sutter]. Sometimes, however, that process doesn't quite work out perfectly.

Dollart Bay, located between Germany and the Netherlands, was the source of another disagreement. At one point, Google Maps showed the Dutch border extending into the bay and even reaching into the German port city of Emden [source: Jacobs]. The bay should be more evenly divided between the two countries. It reportedly took Google a long time to fix the issue -- when a story about the error was picked up by the media in March 2011, officials for the German city of Emden said they had alerted Google to the error more than a year earlier. Unlike the Nicaragua/Costa Rica situation, the map error in Dollart Bay didn't provoke an armed border conflict. Google has misplaced other borders, too -- so while Maps is a fantastic resource for driving directions and satellite imagery, it should never be used as an official source for something as important as a national border.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica would have been at odds even without Google's inaccurate map -- Nicaragua's government could have consulted other sources before dredging the San Juan River. At the same time, since Google Maps continues to be used by millions of people every month, so it's in the company's best interest to continually monitor and refine the accuracy of its maps and quickly respond to similar issues that arise in the future.

Related Links

Sources

  • Sutter, John D. "Google Maps border becomes part of international dispute." Nov. 5, 2010. (Sept. 16, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/2010-11-05/tech/nicaragua.raid.google.maps_1_google-maps-google-spokeswoman-google-earth?_s=PM:TECH
  • McGee, Matt. "Nicaragua Raids Costa Rica, Blames Google Maps." Nov. 4, 2010. (Sept. 19, 2011) http://searchengineland.com/nicaragua-raids-costa-rica-blames-google-maps-54885
  • Jacobs, Frank. "Bordering on Bizarre: Google Maps Fail in Dollart Bay." March 1, 2011. (Sept. 16, 2011) http://bigthink.com/ideas/31493
  • AFP. "Google Maps embroiled in Central America border dispute." Nov. 6, 2010. (Sept. 16, 2011) http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gsZBBN97zCXC3sSElhRkh4_wG5lA?docId=CNG.b7b0e11361e7847889195c6db3707f9e.9f1