Google and Disputed Place Names

How does a global mapping provider like Google deal with disputed map names? (Think, for example, of Iran’s campaign in favour of the Persian Gulf instead of the Arabian Gulf, or South Korea’s on behalf of the East Sea instead of the Sea of Japan.) A national map can pick sides, but an internationally available website or application (i.e., Google Earth) can’t help but get into trouble from one side or the other.

Google’s Director of Global Public Policy, Andrew McLaughlin, explains in a must-read post on Google’s Public Policy Blog how Google manages to find a balance, at least insofar as contested names for bodies of water are concerned. The policy they’ve implemented is called Primary Local Usage.

Under this policy, the English Google Earth client displays the primary, common, local name(s) given to a body of water by the sovereign nations that border it. If all bordering countries agree on the name, then the common single name is displayed (e.g. “Caribbean Sea” in English, “Mar Caribe” in Spanish, etc.). But if different countries dispute the proper name for a body of water, our policy is to display both names, with each label placed closer to the country or countries that use it. …
For language clients other than English, we display only the preferred name in the relevant language. For example, the Japanese client of Google Earth shows “Sea of Japan” in Japanese (日本海), while the Korean version shows “East Sea” in Korean (동해). In these cases, we still include both labels in the click-box political annotation. We believe this solution makes our product more helpful to users in each language by presenting the name they expect to see, but without sidestepping the existence of a disputed alternative name. In that way, we provide more, rather than less, information while maintaining a good user interface and experience.

McLaughlin also outlines some alternatives not taken, such as adopting the recommendations of international organizations or academics, and explains why they weren’t adopted.

Via Ogle Earth.

Previously: Custom Globes and Contested Geographies; Sea of Japan, East Sea, Sea of Korea; Review: From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow.