How Google got involved in a land war in Asia

Google's "indecisive" approach to mapmaking, says John Gravois in Washington Monthly, has put the company in the middle of some messy international disputes

The remote region of Preah Vihear is at the center of a Google-fueled controversy.
(Image credit: Google)

Since the launch of its online atlas in 2005, Google Maps has become a go-to reference for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, the company seems to be "intent on upending our very notion of what a map is," says John Gravois in Washington Monthly. Instead of aiming to create "one definitive map of the world," Google takes a more "agnostic" view of cartography — offering "'place browsers' that contain a multitude of views instead of univocal, authoritative, traditional maps." But this "indecisive rather than domineering" approach to drawing borders and naming places is creating some tricky politics for the company. Here, an excerpt:

"Google’s reach has become so vast that, whenever the corporation becomes involved in a geographical spat, it’s effectively an international incident. Border disputes have become a common vexation. Earlier this year, the government of Cambodia wrote a formal letter of complaint to the corporation—and shared it with the press—because of Google’s depiction of a disputed border with Thailand near an eleventh-century Khmer temple complex in Preah Vihear Province... Suddenly the corporation from Mountain View—which introduced its mapping platform in 2005 with the words “We think maps can be useful and fun”—was making headlines as a major party in a remote jungle conflict that has claimed at least seven lives in recent border skirmishes...

"It all points back to a simple question: What is Google? Is it a repository for all of our mutually exclusive claims, or is it a higher power to which we appeal? It cannot be both, and yet we seem to treat it as both. This tension may only heighten going forward."

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