Google Maps 

Angela Lang/CNET

Google Maps tries to chart out the globe for more than a bil­lion users around the world. But it’s not so sim­ple when those peo­ple dis­agree on where the lines should be drawn. So the search giant dis­plays polit­i­cal bor­ders dif­fer­ent­ly depend­ing on where a view­er is, accord­ing to a report Fri­day by The Wash­ing­ton Post. 

For exam­ple, take Kash­mir, the region that India and Pak­istan have fought over for more than 70 years. Maps view­ers in Pak­istan and else­where see the bor­ders drawn as a dot­ted line, indi­cat­ing a dis­pute. But in India, peo­ple see a sol­id line that shows it as part of India, the report says. Oth­er labels are dif­fer­ent too. The body of water sep­a­rat­ing Japan and South Korea is wide­ly dis­played as the Sea of Japan. But in South Korea, it’s the East Sea.

The dis­crep­an­cies give a glimpse at how Google and oth­er Sil­i­con Val­ley giants oper­ate when con­front­ed with polit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties relat­ed to world gov­ern­ments. The chal­lenge of dis­put­ed regions isn’t a new prob­lem — print­ed map­mak­ers have to deal with it, too — but the speed and con­nect­ed­ness of soft­ware can make the dif­fer­ence appear more jar­ring. 

While work­ing through those deci­sions, Google said it works with orga­ni­za­tions such as the Unit­ed Nations Group of Experts on Geo­graph­i­cal Names (UNGEGN), and looks at treaties and armistices. The com­pa­ny acknowl­edged that it defers to local gov­ern­ments when it comes to bor­ders. 

“We remain neu­tral on issues of dis­put­ed regions and bor­ders, and make every effort to objec­tive­ly dis­play the dis­pute in our maps using a dashed gray bor­der line,” Ethan Rus­sell, Direc­tor of Prod­uct Man­age­ment for Google Maps, said in a state­ment. “In coun­tries where we have local ver­sions of Google Maps, we fol­low local leg­is­la­tion when dis­play­ing names and bor­ders.”

For more sen­si­tive bor­der deci­sions, Google relies on a spe­cial team of employ­ees called the “dis­put­ed regions team,” the Post said. 

Giv­en the scale of Google Maps, which turned 15 years old last week, the deci­sions aren’t triv­ial. In Decem­ber, Google announced that Maps has cap­tured more than 10 mil­lion miles of Street View imagery. The dis­tance, Google said, would amount to cir­cling the Earth more than 400 times. The com­pa­ny also said Google Earth, the search giant’s aer­i­al map­ping ser­vice, has a total of 36 mil­lion square-miles of satel­lite imagery for peo­ple to browse. With that col­lec­tion, Google has mapped out the parts of the world where 98% of peo­ple live.

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