Google Earth and Disputed Borders and Names

I’ve briefly mentioned maps’ normative function before: they not only describe reality, but, by assigning names and boundaries, they define it. National mapping agencies make use of maps’ normative function all the time: to pick a relatively non-controversial example, Canadian maps assert our country’s claim on the Arctic Ocean east of 141° W longitude. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that controversy can erupt when names and boundaries are in dispute, and woe betide the cartographer that has to mediate between conflicting claims. I’ve always thought, for example, that National Geographic did a reasonable enough job at it: usually they map the status quo, with a note in red showing the competing claim. Though I imagine they get plenty enough grief about it anyway.

Google Earth, it turns out, is running into the same kinds of problems, for exactly the reason that the baseline data is the same for users around the world: no variations to placate regional sensitivities. Over on Ogle Earth, Stefan has tracked a couple of instances of this, such as complaints over boundaries — Google Earth apparently shows Kashmir divided between Pakistan and India, and Tibet as part of China (the de facto situation, incidentally, and arguably the correct call) — and over names: a big stink is erupting between Koreans and Japanese over whether the body of water between their countries is the Sea of Japan or the East Sea. (More details here, plus a link to a previous spat regarding Iran and the Arabian/Persian Gulf.)