Google Maps changes political borders based on who's viewing, report says

Disputed regions are displayed differently around the world.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
2 min read

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 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 the area 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 -- makers of printed maps 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.