Google updates map: too little too late?

Faith Merino · November 15, 2010 · Short URL:

A Google Maps error forces the OAS to convene and call for the removal of troops from Costa Rica

Many are likely aware of the “war” between Google and Facebook: Facebook is sucking up all of Google’s talent, Google strikes back by disabling Facebook’s ability to import data from Gmail, so Facebook launches a counterattack by releasing Facebook email.  But over the weekend, a real war in Central America was narrowly avoided.  The cause of the war: an error on Google Maps.

On Saturday, the Organization of American States approved a resolution calling for the removal of Nicaraguan troops from the disputed strip of land along the San Juan River.  The issue came to vote in Washington on Friday, where Venezuela and Nicaragua were the only holdouts in a 22-2 vote for the withdrawal of Nicaraguan troops.

"This is the first time in many years that the OAS permanent council has submitted a matter to a vote and only two countries voted against it,” said Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla’s office in a prepared statement.

In late October, a Nicaraguan military unit invaded Costa Rica and set up camp on along the San Juan River, where troops were accused of dredging the river and dumping refuse in Costa Rica, as well as replacing Costa Rican flags with Nicaraguan flags.  The Nicaraguan military commander responsible for the invasion, Commander Eden Pastora, openly admitted to reporters from La Nación that the whole incident was a misunderstanding based on a Google Maps error that placed the border between the two countries some 3,000 meters off: “See the satellite photo on Google and there the border can be seen.  In the last 3,000 meters, the two margins are of Nicaragua.  There, towards the Castle, the border is the right margin, it’s clear.”

Despite the commander’s admission that the invasion was done in error, Nicaragua refused to withdraw its troops from the disputed strip of land, claiming that the land belongs to Nicaragua, regardless of what Google Maps claims, which eventually forced the OAS to convene and vote on the issue.  Costa Rica hailed the resolution as a “diplomatic victory.”

While Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has said he will consider withdrawing troops, he venomously referred to the resolution as “manipulated” and “a conspiracy.”

Daniel Ortega

"We have been in it due to inertia because the OAS should have disappeared a while ago," Ortega told reporters.

On Friday, a Google blog announced that Google Maps had been corrected to accurately depict the border.  Bing had the correct image in the first place, but apparently the Nicaraguan military relies exclusively on Google Maps for all of its territorial information when making decisions about whether or not to invade.

Despite the resolution, the OAS has no real authority in Nicaragua, and Nicaragua has yet to withdraw troops from Costa Rica, claiming that the land is Nicaraguan territory based on previous treaties and a 2009 Hague-based International Court of Justice decision.  The land in question has been disputed for over 200 years.  And all it took was one Google Maps error to spark an invasion…

Google has been criticized before for depicting incorrect borders on Google Maps (of course, it should be noted that as countries see the in-and-out flow of different governments and negotiate disputes with neighbors, borders have a tendency to shift).  Until the border was corrected on Friday, the Costa Rican government accused Google of favoring Nicaragua.

While Google can hardly be held responsible for the decisions made by the Nicaraguan military and government, it does illuminate the challenges faced by emerging tech firms that seem so far removed from international dialogues.  For one thing, it has become clear that Google has been placed (not, apparently, by choice) in a position of global authority.  It’s not neutral; it is an active voice in the global discourse.

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