Some perceptive Google Maps users noticed something interesting this morning. The Russian version of the world’s most popular mapping tool shows Crimea inside the boundaries of the Russian Federation. Versions of Google Maps from Ukraine are still showing the peninsula as part of Ukraine.
The dichotomy is not the only one on the web. Some social networks, like Facebook and Russian language site Vkontakte are still showing ordinary Crimeans as Ukranians, while Russian sites Odnoklassniki and Moi Mir are claiming inhabitants of the peninsula as Russians. The Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) choice may be the most interesting, however. The company is trying to play both sides of the divide. That’s a smart idea when you can separate your audience. But in this case everyone can see the duplicity.
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Crimea: Google tries to account for taste
Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) is trying to please everyone with its compromise on Crimea, but it may end up alienating everyone involved. The company has faced challenges like this before, and it is likely to be fed them for as long as the its mapping service remains popular.
Back in 2011 Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) approved a renaming of an important Libyan landmark during the country’s civil war. Green Square in Tripoli was changed to Martyr’s Square in August 2011, a month before the death of Muamar Gadaffi signaled the end of that war. In that case Google had little fear of alienating an internet-dense populace. Crimea’s case is different.
Google fails at international diplomacy
There is an argument that such important matters should not be arbitrated by companies like Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB). Those companies only represent the interests of a tiny number of reasonably well-off people. Nothing can change the de facto situation, however. Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) is the major source of information for much of the world’s population. That means it has to take issues like Crimean identity seriously.
Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) has several ways in which it shows disputed territories. The disingenuous practice of showing different borders to different people has been used before Ukraine, and it is one solution to the problem. The mapping service uses dotted lines to show other disputed territories such as Kashmir.
After the adoption of a constitution, Crimea is a de facto part of the Russian Federation. Western powers may disagree with the legality of the move, but it’s difficult to deal with the practicality. Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) and other web services need to structure their distinctions in order to avoid causing incident. Arbitrary solutions like different identifications for different regions are likely to cause trouble, and sow distrust among interested parties.