The Web and Ethics in Cartography


Michael P. Peterson

Department of Geography / Geology

University of Nebraska at Omaha

Omaha, NE 68182



Cartographers have struggled with a variety of ethical questions that relate both to how maps should properly convey information and the role of maps in society at large. Monmonier questions the ethics of authoring single, highly-authored interpretations of reality. Wood questions the ethicacy of cartographers serving those in power to maintain and expand their influence. A number of ethical questions also surround maps and the Internet. The World Wide Web has emerged as an important new medium for cartography. It is estimated that over 50 million maps are distributed via the web on a daily basis. In the transition to a new medium, ethical questions emerge about the role of cartographers as purveyors of information about the world, and the ethicacy of choosing a medium that limits access to maps.


1.0 Introduction

Ethics are the moral principles, based on social values, that define a code of right and wrong. Some ethical codes are set in law but most are simply unwritten rules. Acceptance of a common ethic forms the basis of society. The ethical codes may be set in place by society at large or by any particular sub-group of society. The medical profession, for example, is guided by implicit and explicit ethical codes that have a large influence on how doctors provide medical care to patients.

Cartography is also guided by a set of ethical considerations. For example, cartographers value accuracy and communication. It would be unethical, for example, for a cartographer to intentionally falsify a map, as was the case in former communist countries. It would be equally unethical to deliberately create a map that did not communicate information to a potential map user. A host of ethical considerations underlie the entire decision-making process in cartography.

The role of cartographers as "neutral presenters of information" has been brought into question in post-modernism. In The Power of Maps, Wood (1992, 43) argues that maps are an instrument of the nation-state to wage war, to assess taxes, and to exploit strategic resources. The nation-state is mostly interested in stability and longevity. To this end, cartography is "primarily a form of political discourse concerned with the acquisition and maintenance of power" (Wood 1992, 43). Wood argues that ethical considerations in cartography concerning accuracy and communication may not be as important as serving the needs of the nation-state.

McHaffie, Andrews and Dobson and two anonymous employees of the US federal government (1990) identify personal and institutional vigilance in product quality assurance, map plagiarism through violation of copyright law, and conflicts of interests as important ethical issues. They question the nature and validity of cartography's claim to truth ("accuracy"), and assert that cartographic ethics cannot be extricated from the values of the larger society that commissions the production of cartographic information.

Monmonier (1991) questions the ethics of the "Single Map Solution." He argues that any single map is a highly selective, authored view reflecting map scale, geographic scope, feature content and data classification. He suggests that the skeptical map viewer should question whether a) an ulterior motive led to a biased view of reality favoring the author's biases, and/or b) whether a lazy map author failed to explore designs offering a more coherent or complete picture of reality. Technology, on the one hand, has aggravated the problem of the one map solution by placing powerful mapping software at the disposal of amateurs. But, he argues, technology can foster greater openness and a more complete understanding of maps and their meaning, and thereby provide a more ethical approach to cartographic analysis and communication. He goes on to present six strategies for a more open and overtly critical cartography in which one-map solutions are both rare and suspect.

Certainly, the major development in cartography in the 1990s has been the dramatic increase in the use of the Internet for distributing maps. Having its beginnings as ARPANET in 1969, the Internet now consists of several data communications protocols including e-mail and the file-transfer protocol (FTP). The dramatic increase in the use of the Internet during this decade can be attributed to the World Wide Web (Crampton 1995). The Web is now a major communications medium. In the process, it has also become the primary means of map distribution. The use of the web for map distribution and map use raises a number of ethical questions. First, we examine the growth and usage of this new medium.


2.0 The Web

Conceived at the European Particle Physics Laboratory (CERN) in Switzerland, the WWW introduced the principle of "universal readership," a concept that networked information should be accessible from any type of computer in any country with a single program. It was originally intended to assist researchers in high-energy physics research by linking related documents. The developers wanted to create a seamless network in which information from any source could be accessed in a simple and consistent manner. A prototype of the new protocol was finished in 1991. The first widely available browser, Mosaic, was introduced by the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) in 1993. Netscape, a commercial successor to Mosaic, was introduced at the end of 1994 and Microsoft followed with Explorer in 1995.

The rapid growth of the web has been astounding. In June of 1993 there were only 130 web servers. By mid-1995 there were 23,500 web servers and this had grown to 230,000 by 1996 and 2.4 million by 1998. The web now dominates the Internet. By 1999, the web generated 68% of all Internet traffic while e-mail and FTP each had about 11% ( As the web has become increasingly commercialized, a considerable amount of data has been collected on web usage. The number of Internet users is growing rapidly. Estimates of Internet use in the United States are fairly consistent at about 30% of the population (the US ranks fifth in the world behind Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway). reports that the average web user spends nearly six hours looking at 355 pages per week over 10 sessions. They also found that each page is examined for an average of 59 seconds.

Once primarily used by the upper-middle class and the well educated, the Internet has become more mainstream. The report found that 51 percent of those planning to get Internet access are over the age of 35. Almost half (49 percent) of the group have only a high school education or less. More than half of those planning to go online (58 %) make less than $50,000 a year.

Web users in the United States are also divided relatively equally by sex. 52% of web users are male and 48% are female (the actual percentage of male and female is 52% female and 48% male). Web surfers are only 9% more likely to be male. In terms of age, web usage remains high until about the age of 55. Only 6% of 55-64 year old people had accessed the web in the past 30 days. This is compared with 26% in the 25-34 year old category and 28% in the 35-44 age group (Thompson 1999b).

The number of Internet users around the world is growing quickly. The Computer Industry Almanac has reported that by the year 2000, 327 million people around the world will have Internet access. This is up from 61 million in 1996 and 148 million in 1998. Estimates for 2005 are 720 million. The top 15 countries will account for nearly 82% of the these worldwide Internet users (including business, educational, and home Internet users). By the year 2000 there will be 25 countries where over 10% of the population will be regular users of the Internet (Cyberatlas 1999).

Access to the Internet varies considerable by country. Table 1 shows the approximate populations that have Internet access. A common definition of "Internet Access" is use of the Internet in the past week. The percentage of people that have access to the Internet varies from 61% in Iceland to 0.02% in Vietnam.

Table 1. Internet Access by Country. The number of weekly users are given in millions. The percent of users is specific to the population of each country.


# of Users

% of Users



































































Saudi Arabia






Slovak Rep.



South Africa



Sri Lanka


















This general distribution is reflected in the map in Figure 1 that depicts the world distribution of Internet hosts in July of 1998. North America, Europe, and the Pacific rim dominate in the location of Internet hosts, but a large number of Internet hosts can also be found in South America, the South Pacific and South Africa.

Figure 1. World Distribution of Internet Hosts in July 1998.


Maps represent a major component of Internet traffic but assessing map use on the Internet is not an easy task. There are large number of web sites that distribute maps but no coordinated method of measuring the number of maps that are downloaded. Beyond this, of course, there is no way to determine if the maps that are downloaded through the web are used or utilized in any effective manner. But, the growth in the number of maps that are distributed through the web is astounding. In 1997, computers at the commercial site were able to generate 1000 maps a minute. By 1999, MapQuest responded to an average of about 2,500 user-defined maps a minute, with peak production much higher. Over five million, user-specified maps were distributed by MapQuest on daily basis during 1999.


3.0 The Web as New Medium for Cartography

The author gave a talk in 1998 to several groups of ninth graders at a local high school. There were enough computers with Internet access that only a few students needed to share a computer. The talk was based on a web page that that had links to information about geography and maps. When students accessed the first map, they began to click on it with the mouse in an attempt to make it "do" something. It was a static map, of course, and all of their clicking was in vain. It had been selected for the presentation because it was an example of well-designed map for the web with a good choice of colors and text that was even legible. That didn't seem to matter to the students. The map didn't "do" anything and they wanted to move on.

The World Wide Web (WWW) has become a major communications medium. In the process, it has also become the primary means of map distribution. On a daily basis, more maps are distributed through the web than are printed on paper. The web is where people now go to find a map. More importantly, as those ninth graders made clear, the web has changed map user expectations. Maps can no longer be static. We need to better understand how this new medium can be used for cartography.


4.0 Ethics and the Web

The introduction of the web has fostered a new set of ethical questions. McGranaghan (1999, p. 3) argues that "anyone with a modicum of technical savvy can 'publish' any content they wish on the internet, without the editorial and market constraints which ostensibly encourage accurate, well-crafted content in traditional media." He goes on to question whether we can place any trust in the maps presented on the web. He admits, however, that the initial trust in any map -- based on necessity and the leap of faith guided by critical assessment -- is all we have ever had to establish trust in maps.

A host of other ethical problems are associated with the distribution of maps through the Internet. Computer monitors have different display characteristics which means that maps will not be displayed at the same size, even on identical monitors. It is somewhat like printing a series of maps on paper and then having each map change in size after it has been printed. The bar scale is the only expression of map scale that can still be used on these maps -- all numeric scales are rendered meaningless. Is it ethical to print maps when the size of that map cannot be controlled? Colors also appear differently on different monitors, raising similar ethical questions.

These problems are not unique to cartography. Online stores that sell clothes, for example, will certainly want a system that shows the colors of garments correctly so that customers are not disappointed when they receive the item. Some high-end monitors already incorporate color correction software. Depicting the size of objects correctly will be another concern in the commercial sector. Market forces will demand better standards for the display of their products, which will, in turn, benefit the display of all graphics, including maps.

Probably the most troubling ethical question presented by the web concerns its status as a medium. For, if the web is regarded as a significant medium that conveys information to large groups of people, where does this place other mediums, like paper? For example, most cartographers would agree that it is unethical to put maps on stone because these maps can not be easily duplicated or transported and only a few people would have the opportunity to view them. Cartographers would be limiting access to their maps by choosing this medium and this would be unethical.

The same, of course, can be said for maps on paper. They also can not be as easily duplicated or transported as maps through the Internet. Is it, therefore, unethical to print maps on paper? Why would cartographers want to intentionally limit access to their products by using a medium that has such a small potential for readership? Is it that cartographers only want a few, select people to be able to view their products? Are economic considerations the overriding concern? The printing maps on paper can only be justified if the intention is to limit their distribution. From this perspective, the printing of maps on paper is unethical.

Economic considerations are, of course, important. Cartographers must earn a living and paper is a tangible medium that can be exchanged for money. The maps are printed at a larger size and a finer resolution so that they cannot be easily duplicated. The paper medium forces to map user to pay. But, maps should be viewed as something more than an economic commodity. They are like a window to the world. In our understanding of the world, they are at the boundary between the known and unknown and this information should be not be kept from people. Like water, it is information we all need to survive. Maps can not be left in the hands of the few.


5.0 Conclusion

Maps are an important source of information and the cartographic process by necessity guided by a variety of ethical considerations. An important consideration is which medium should be used to distribute maps. In a few short years, the world-wide-web has become a major medium for the distribution of sorts of information, including maps. Hundreds of millions of people now access the web to access information. More maps are now distributed via the Internet than are printed on paper.

Cartography is now faced with a major ethical question: Continue to distribute limited quantities of maps on paper or provide maps through the Internet to a much wider audience. The information that is presented on maps is seen here to be crucial to gain an understanding of the world. It would, therefore, be unethical to limit access to this information, and equally unethical to continue to print maps on paper.


6.0 References:

Crampton, Jeremy (1995) Cartography Resources on the World Wide Web, Cartographic Perspectives. No. 22, pp. 3-11.

Cyberatlas (1999)

McGranaghan, Matthew (1999) The Web, Cartography and Trust. Cartographic Perspectives. No. 32, pp. 3-5.

McHaffie, P., Andrews, S., Dobson, M. and two anonymous employees of a federal mapping agency (1990) Ethical Problems in Cartography. Cartographic Perspectives. No. 7, pp. 3-13.

Monmonier, Mark (1991) Ethics in Map Design. Six Strategies for Confronting the Traditional One-Map Solution. Cartographic Perspectives. No. 10, pp. 3-8.

Peterson, Michael P. (1995) Interactive and Animated Cartography. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Wood, D. (1992) The Power of Maps. New York: Guilford.


Acknowledgments: The author would like to Prof. Dr. Fritz Kelnhofer, Dr. Georg Gartner and other members and students of the Institute of Cartography and Reproduction Techniques at the Technical University of Vienna for valuable discussions during the Spring semester of 1999 that helped formulate the ideas presented here.