Mapping the borders of conflict: How Google depicts disputed regions

mapping disputed territoryMaps enable us to picture the world we inhabit. They depict physical spaces, marking the borders between nations or nature’s own boundaries between plain and mountain, water and shoreline. To those who can read them, they tell stories of crops, climate, culture, and economies. Maps also speak of war and violence, of divided nations, of claims for territory,  and of peoples locked in conflict, where even the names that places bear are in dispute.

In depicting geopolitically sensitive locations, what can the mapmakers do in the face of competing claims of naming rights or ownership? Google’s Public Policy Blog discusses the ethics of map-making, describing the hierarchy of values that informs Google’s practice in creating maps. Google draws on its own mission, while seeking guidance from authoritative references and honoring local expectations, in creating its map products, available in 41 languages and via 32 region-specific domains:

In all cases we work to represent the “ground truth” as accurately and neutrally as we can, in consistency with Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. We work to provide as much discoverable information as possible so that users can make their own judgments about geopolitical disputes. That can mean providing multiple claim lines (e.g. the Syrian and Israeli lines in the Golan Heights), multiple names (e.g. two names separated by a slash: “Londonderry / Derry“), or clickable political annotations with short descriptions of the issues (e.g. the annotation for “Arunachal Pradesh,” currently in Google Earth only; see blog post about disputed seas).

Sometimes, as Google acknowledges, these principles may conflict:

For example, is localizing a place name inconsistent with Google’s mission? What happens when an authoritative references does not seem to represent the truth on the ground? What about when local user expectations don’t match international convention, or when local laws prohibit acknowledging regional conflicts?

Like the borders themselves, the answers are not always easy to define.

(With a hat tip to The Map Room.)

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