Google seems to be caught in the middle of the Russia-Ukraine conflict after it officially made Crimea a part of Russia in Google Maps. The tech company issued an update for European borders and firmly defined Crimea’s disputed border status with a bold black line — a change that only Russian users can see.
The change appears to be the result of Russian governmental pressure under President Vladimir Putin to solidify Crimea’s secession from Ukraine last month, The Independent reported. The rest of the world, however, will still see the Ukraine-Crimea border as “disputed,” indicated with a bold dotted line, when looking at Google Maps. Ironically, the Google Maps update for Russian users still shows several cities and towns within Crimea’s borders as part of the Ukraine. Other mapmakers, such as National Geographic, have taken another approach with Crimea, noting the country as its own entity rather than a part of Russia or Ukraine.
This isn’t the first time Google has tried to tried to satisfy competing world interests with its maps, portraying disputed territories differently based on the region. There are currently 30 world map versions, according to NPR.
Google has tried to remain neutral in geopolitical territory disputes, following the laws and wishes of the disputing countries. Similar to its tactic with Crimea, Google attempted to toe the line with a China-India border dispute in 2009 involving Arunachal Pradesh — an area claimed by China but run by India. The tech company showed each country as owning the area within their respective country borders.
During Russia’s crisis with Georgia in 2008, the company removed Georgia from its map service seemingly in effort to remain neutral. Google briefly dual-labeled the body of water separating Iran and the Arab Gulf States as both the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Gulf, a change that was short-lived when Iranians protested in 2008.
In a statement sent to ThinkProgress, Google said:
Google Maps makes every effort to depict disputed regions and features objectively. Our Maps product reflects border disputes, where applicable. Where we have local versions, we follow local regulations for naming and borders.
But playing both sides in international territory disputes seemingly goes against the company’s reputation for taking a stance with politically-charged debates overseas. For example, the tech company has been very outspoken, leading protests and siding with citizens’ privacy rights in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks naming them as one of companies the U.S. National Security Agency used to spy on U.S. citizens and allies. Google has also spearheaded a movement against government censorship, intervening with China’s website bans by notifying users when their searches were disrupted or blocked by the government. The company even fought to restore an anti-Muslim video earlier this year to YouTube in defense of free speech after a federal judge ordered it be taken down.
Tech companies in general have become more vocal about polarizing political issues, often speaking out against government censorship.. In the midst of Turkey’s Twitter ban, for instance, the microblogging site offered solutions for Turks to get around the blockage. Facebook and Google have led large-scale Web protests fighting for open Internet access free from government interference.