Google Redraws the Borders On Maps Depending On Who's Looking

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Washington Post: For more than 70 years, India and Pakistan have waged sporadic and deadly skirmishes over control of the mountainous region of Kashmir. Tens of thousands have died in the conflict, including three just this month. Both sides claim the Himalayan outpost as their own, but web surfers in India could be forgiven for thinking the dispute is all but settled: The borders on Google’s online maps there display Kashmir as fully under Indian control. Elsewhere, users see the region’s snaking outlines as a dotted line, acknowledging the dispute. Google’s corporate mission is “to organize the world’s information,” but it also bends it to its will. From Argentina to the U.K. to Iran, the world’s borders look different depending on where you’re viewing them from. That’s because Google – and other online mapmakers – simply change them.
Unlike mapping geographical features, sketching the contours of towns or countries is ultimately a human construct. So, Google consults with local governments and other official bodies to help make a decision about where to draw its lines, according to people familiar with the matter. And it refers to historical maps, news events and atlases, these people said. But changes are also made with little fanfare and can be done immediately, while physical maps are beholden to printing schedules. When it comes to contested borders, people in different countries often see different things. Take the body of water between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. To almost all it is known as the Sea of Japan, but for Google Maps users in South Korea it’s listed as the East Sea. More than 4,000 miles away, the waterway separating Iran from Saudi Arabia may be either the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf, depending on who’s looking online. And the line in Western Sahara marking the northern border with Morocco disappears for Moroccans seeking it out on the Web – along with the region’s name altogether. The sparsely populated northwest Africa region is disputed between Morocco, which seized it in 1975, and the indigenous Sahrawi.
One of Google’s contract employees said they “are often told to alter maps with no reason given and that their changes take effect almost immediately,” the report says. “That typically includes relatively minor adjustments like widening a path in a park or removing mentions of landmarks like a statue or traffic circle. But, these people said, Google has a special team employees refer to as ‘the disputed region team’ that addresses more prickly matters…”

“The company also responds to feedback, such as once changing the name of Native American tribal land to ‘nation’ from ‘reservation,’” notes The Washington Post. “Google’s maps can also be revised by a band of enthusiasts known as Local Guides who can submit suggestions for alterations, which often are implemented automatically. […] In some cases, local laws dictate how Google and others must represent maps to avoid censure, as is the case in China or Russia, according to people familiar with the matter.”