The simple way Google Maps could side-step its Crimea controversy

How Crimea currently appears on Google Maps
How Crimea currently appears on Google Maps.

Now that Crimea has joined the "gray areas" of the world – the disputed territories that no one seems quite sure how to portray on a map – its cartographic status is suddenly a matter of importance. National Geographic recently got into a little bit of controversy for suggesting that it wouldn't portray the area as part of Ukraine, for example.

The situation might seem especially problematic for a service like Google Maps, which is not only one of the most high-profile mapping services in the world, but also incorporates crowd-sourcing into its mapping process (which has resulted in quite a few awkward moments over the years). Russian politicians are keeping an eye on what the mapping company is doing, with one State Duma deputy reportedly asking authorities to check with Google as to why they hadn't portrayed Crimea as part of Russia yet.

Google is smart about these things, however, and I suspect it will be able to sidestep any controversy here. Why? Because it does it all the time already. For an example of how that happens, take a look at the disputed border between China and India.

Following a controversy over the status of Arunachal Pradesh (which is claimed by China but administered by India), Google took up a rather novel approach: showing China one thing, and India another.

So here's what happens when you go to Google.co.In and search for Arunachal Pradesh, and the province is quite clearly shown as part of India (note the Chinese characters north of the border):

Arunachal Pradesh as shown on Google.co.In
Arunachal Pradesh as shown on Google.co.In.

Now here's how what searching for Arunachal Pradesh on Google.cn. As you can see, that border looks quite different:

Arunachal Pradesh as shown on Google.cn
Arunachal Pradesh as shown on Google.cn.

There have been other times where Google appears to have used this tactic to get round controversies – Google refers to the "Persian Gulf" and the "Arabian Gulf" on Google.ua, for example.

Will Google use this tactic for Crimea? Google didn't respond to requests to comment for this story, but right now Crimea appears to remain part of Ukraine on Google Maps, even when accessed from Google.Ru, and two other disputed areas, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are clearly shown as disputed parts of Georgia on Russian versions of Google Maps.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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