Opinion: Digital Maps Require Greater Government Oversight

We rely more on mobile navigation apps than we realize. It’s a mistake to overlook them when regulating Big Tech.

Even though I have lived in Los Angeles for more than five years, I still regularly open the map on my phone to orient myself, to avoid traffic, and to choose the best restaurants nearby. Anecdotes and data tell me that I’m not alone: The majority of Americans regularly use mobile GPS navigation, even in their own cities. Google Maps, the most popular such app, has more than one billion active monthly users worldwide.

For the most part, these digital tools are seen as practical and trusted, and do not appear to come with the drawbacks of, say, social media. A recent outcry called attention to Google Maps mislabeling abortion services, but this was a notable exception — compared to other areas of big tech, mapping applications rarely come under public scrutiny.

This lack of oversight is a mistake.

By now, it is no secret that technology companies routinely exploit our biases. But doing so in the digital mapping space poses a particularly significant threat: These apps have a colossal influence on our experience of the surrounding world. They direct us through cities and shuttle cars to our streets. They provide us with the names of neighborhoods and point us to businesses nearby. People often rely on them without thinking twice, sometimes to the point of injury or, in the case of one teenager who was guided to take a wrong turn in Siberia, even death. There’s even evidence to suggest our dependence on digital maps may be altering our brains: Studies show that frequent use of guided navigation causes detrimental effects on memory.

The companies that monopolize the digital map industry — namely, Apple and Google’s parent company, Alphabet — thus hold an immense power. The regulatory status quo, however, does very little to check this outsized influence. To prevent unwanted abuses, the United States should take an active role in regulating certain aspects of digital maps, especially with respect to their GPS navigation and advertising practices.

One striking area of unchecked but harmful influence has been in reshaping the identity of neighborhoods, both in the abstract and the concrete. Mobile navigation systems seem to have (somewhat paradoxically) led to worsened traffic conditions, especially in smaller neighborhoods and rural roads. Reports of this abound. In the United Kingdom, for example, the number of cars significantly increased in recent years, yet traffic on main roads has remained relatively constant — instead, smaller roads bore the brunt.

This is well-explained by theoretical models, which show that mobile navigation systems can lead to worsened traffic conditions, both on these neighborhood roads and overall. The reason is that cars get rerouted from major throughways to less congested, but often smaller, roads. The smaller roads, not designed to handle this volume of traffic, quickly congest. Some of these routes can become palpably more dangerous. In addition, the same drivers that get redirected may be using turn-by-turn navigation systems that have pop-up advertisements, which can be very distracting.

Google Maps has also quite literally renamed gentrifying neighborhoods in places such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Detroit. One resident of Buffalo, New York, lamented to Reuters that “when they took away our name, they took away our identity.” This echoes old issues with the power of maps: Before their digital incarnation, maps drawn by colonists consciously erased Indigenous communities, giving the perception to the settlers that the land was empty and available for undisturbed occupation.

By now, it is no secret that technology companies routinely exploit our biases. But doing so in the digital mapping space poses a particularly significant threat.

Of course, the identity of a neighborhood is never fixed. But these changes are neither desirable nor inevitable: They were pushed forward almost exclusively by private interests, without the input of those directly affected. Some communities have already begun pushing back, for example, by building speed bumps to slow down their roads (and therefore make them less desirable for the rerouting algorithms). Grassroots solutions like these are important. But they are not enough. With sensible regulation — by, for example, the Department of Transportation — harms could be avoided.

Another area in need of revision is the advertising regulatory landscape. While The Federal Trade Commission sets rules for both print and digital advertisement — for example, by regulating influencer endorsements — existing regulation assumes that advertising in maps don’t require special treatment. But digital advertisement campaigns that target our biases have already gained the label of being “manipulative,” and location-based targeted advertisements, such as those used in digital maps, are even more effective.

More importantly, these advertisements can directly influence how we cognize our physical world. Our current state of affairs paves the way for a digital gerrymandering of our surroundings based on private interests’ ability to pay for advertisements on these platforms. Companies, especially small businesses, that choose not to advertise in digital maps will be at a major disadvantage because they will be virtually invisible.

This has already been seen with the proliferation of fake listings on Google Maps. Fake businesses advertised heavily on the application, which harmed real businesses who were forced — sometimes in a predatory manner — to advertise on the platform in order to be shown in the first page, and therefore stay competitive. A business owner is reported to have told The Wall Street Journal, “If Google suspends my listings, I’m out of a job. Google could make me homeless.” Google has taken some steps to address this, but the potential for more exploitation is there.

More recently, when typing “abortion clinics” on Google Maps in Mississippi, nine out of ten results would lead you to pregnancy crisis centers — organizations that specialize in discouraging people from having abortions — instead of facilities where abortions are provided. This misdirection was widespread throughout much of the United States until, following public outcry and pressure from lawmakers, Google Maps implemented an update that now clearly marks whether a particular location provides an abortion or not. Though the issue appears to be alleviated, part of the reason for this misdirection was that the pregnancy crisis centers advertised on the platform.

Before their digital incarnation, maps drawn by colonists consciously erased Indigenous communities, giving the perception to the settlers that the land was empty and available for undisturbed occupation.

Simply paying for an advertisement will not automatically get a business listed first; the money spent is only one parameter in Google’s algorithm. But it is one component, and as the fake listing and abortion misdirection cases show, it can be maneuvered by third parties for their special interests.

Though Waze — also owned by Alphabet — has long featured advertising on its app, the practice on Google Maps is rather recent. Reports suggest that Apple Maps, currently ad-free, will follow suit as soon as next year. It is therefore timely to start thinking about regulating advertising in digital maps: As the legal scholar Mark Bartholomew notes, once a space is colonized by advertisement, it is difficult to roll it back. The risk of the monopolized market of digital maps getting infected with advertisements is too great. And we can’t rely on public pressure alone or trust big tech titans to do the right thing without specific oversight.

The FTC could expand the regulatory oversight it already practices in order to implement digital map-specific regulation. It could restrict the amount a business can get an edge by advertising in maps by, for example, limiting the amount of space in the organic results to only one advertiser. Compared to the alternative of outright banning all advertisements in digital maps, this would allow the companies to continue making revenue while also preventing the digital mapping space from being overrun by advertisements.

Implementing effective regulation at all these different levels is going to be difficult; it is important to have a two-way conversation between businesses and regulators. The $11 billion dollar industry is almost certain to be hostile to any recommendations that cut into their profits.

But maps are instrumental in shaping our understanding of the world. Citizens deserve models that represent their environment accurately and navigate them without harmful bias.

Benjamin Santos Genta is a PhD student in Logic and Philosophy of Science at UC Irvine. His work lies at the intersection of philosophy and economics.