Hastings Science and Technology Law Journal
One Map to Rule Them All: Google Maps and Quasi-Sovereign Power in International Legal Disputes
With 80% market share, Google Maps has become the most powerful digital mapping platform in the world to such an extent that users often believe Google Maps represents an objectively accurate and universally truthful depiction of the world. The desire to create a single, objective map for the whole world dates to the turn of the 20th Century, even though objectivity and cartography are inherently at odds—a notion that has long complicated the status of maps as evidence in domestic and international law. However, growing acceptance of GIS maps as evidence in both domestic and international courts highlights the importance of understanding the relationships between maps and law, particularly as GIS mapping is dominated by a single company.
Google’s internal process for resolving border and toponym disputes (some of which date back centuries) by representing “ground truth” is poorly articulated, lacks transparency, and is often at odds with the consensus of the international legal community, which is concerning given the outsourcing to a private company of a function so intimately intertwined with sovereignty as cartography. However, because of the ubiquity Google Maps has accrued thanks to its competitive advantage in collecting and displaying cartographic data, users—including some sovereign actors themselves—have conferred on Google Maps a certain authority in the field that the private company does not actually possess. This ubiquity has given Google a place of prominence on the international plane akin to a quasi-sovereign, where the company serves as both an instigator and mediator of first instance in border and toponym disputes, from legitimizing disputed borders and toponyms via localized maps, to weaponizing border claims, to defining new borders in post-conflict power vacuums. In the wake of a reassertion of hard national borders during the COVID crisis and Brexit, as well as threats to the stability and predictability of the international legal order and sacrosanctity of borders increasingly coming from major sovereign powers like Russia in Ukraine and China in Taiwan, scholars, international lawyers, and policymakers should be aware of potential situations where Google Maps’ quasi-sovereign authority over states’ juridical functions has the potential to impact decades- or centuries-old territorial disputes affected by recent demographic, environmental, and technological disruption. Further, this paper places the issues posed by Google Maps into a broader conversation about technology platforms’ monopoly power and the growing sovereign-like function of supranational technology companies in both the domestic and international legal realm, where the realities of a technological world have outpaced formal legal responses to those challenges.
Catherine Grace Katz,
One Map to Rule Them All: Google Maps and Quasi-Sovereign Power in International Legal Disputes,
14 Hastings Sci. & Tech. L.J. 67
Available at: https://repository.uchastings.edu/hastings_science_technology_law_journal/vol14/iss1/4