When Google makes a mistake, Nicaragua invades Costa Rica

Directions...reviews...news...international border disputes. How much should Google be held accountable for its mistakes?

A couple of months ago, I took the family out for ice cream as an end of summer treat. We decided to try a stand famous for its homemade ice cream and giant portions not too far from us that friends had recommended. It was located in a little town across the border in New Hampshire, but I wasn't sure how to get to the stand, so I fired up Google Maps on my Android phone and off we went.

The built-in navigation didn't take me exactly where I expected, but we live in a pretty rural area with lots of little back roads, so I just went with it. It wasn't long before we came to a well-used dirt road, but the little blue arrow kept pointing ahead, so we forged ahead in our Honda Pilot. Another mile or so brought us to another dirt road, this one marked with a sign stating that the road was not town-maintained. Again, not a big deal in these parts, especially with a decent all-wheel drive vehicle and no snow on the ground.

Three miles later, after the kids and I had cleared fallen trees, my oldest boys had walked along beside the car as spotters for the larger obstacles, and my wife had nearly stroked out, we came back to pavement. A sign marked this end of the dirt road, noting that it was a Class 6 trail, not recommended for passenger vehicles. Woops. But Google said to keep going! And sure, we could have gone back, but that wouldn't have been the testosterone-filled thing to do. My dad certainly wouldn't have gone back. What sort of example would I have been setting for my sons? (Don't answer that.)

Next: Is there ice cream in Nicaragua? »

Of course, when Google's maps aren't up to snuff in Central America, a hungry family isn't just delayed a bit from finding particularly creamy ice cream. In Central America, problems with Google Maps turn into international incidents. As in, Nicaragua invades Costa Rica. No, seriously. According to MSNBC,

A Nicaraguan troop commander blamed bad border denotations on Google Maps for an incursion into Costa Rica last week. According to the commander, a "bug in Google" inspired troops to enter an area near the long-contested border, remove Costa Rica's flag and raise its own.

Then there's the case of the missing merchant reviews. A reader alerted me last week to a problem with Google Places reviews that simply disappeared, leaving those business owners without the steady stream of customers provided by positive reviews associated with user searches or Maps results. Google did not comment on the ongoing and unresolved issue that appears on a number of Google user boards.

And what about this blog? I could write the most brilliant piece of insightful prose ever typed, but if it doesn't hit Google News, it's not going to pay the bills this month. Businesses will pay consultants upwards of $500 an hour to provide search engine optimization (SEO) for their websites to ensure that when people Google certain topics, their business is in those magical top three or four results.

The point here is that we rely a great deal on Google. Sure, some of you eschew Google in favor of Yahoo! or Bing under some misguided notion that they collect less data about you (or you just prefer the snazzy Bing interface). But essentially, Google holds the keys to the Internet for a whole lot of users. Including, apparently, the Nicaraguan military.

Nobody's perfect, though, and neither is any given search engine. Google still relies, ultimately, on human programming and decision-making. So at what point does Google become liable when its services are imperfect? In the case of the Nicaraguan mishap, Google actually says that data from the State Department were wrong, leaving the company taking the heat.

Could I sue Google for the pieces of undercarriage I most likely left somewhere along the New Hampshire border? I suppose I could, but that would be stupid. GPS and Google Maps or not, I crept along that trail because I wanted to. And because there were no places wide enough to turn around.

What about the merchants who see their businesses impacted by what appear to be server glitches that prevent some user reviews from surfacing? After all, they don't pay to be featured in Google Places; they just had to do some leg work to get satisfied customers to write a review on the free service.

This is actually a pretty dicey area legally. How often have we had a company like Google make it into case law for liability on products that it offers for free? Never, as far as I know.

It's at least worth considering, however, the impact that Google has on our daily lives, whether because millions of us use it to find a popular restaurant or because it's usually more accurate than our own maps of disputed international borders.