Seen from the United States, Kashmir is a complex web of dotted lines that describe more a century of political and military conflict between India, Pakistan, and China. Seen from India, that boundary is decidedly less nuanced: it’s a solid line that puts the entire disputed territory inside India. From China, the boundary is different and, of course, it favors China.
Google and Microsoft have found themselves embroiled in some awkward geopolitical disputes as they’ve made their mapping services available around the world, and they’ve found a brilliant diplomatic workaround to the demands of dogmatic politicians: they give each country the map that its government wants, serving it seamlessly to domestic users by reckoning the locations of their IP addresses.
It’s possible to force these services to display the map corresponding to a particular country, though, and I’ve done that here in order to compare the maps that they serve to different constituencies. Try out some examples of delicate sensibilities by clicking the links below, or explore the map comparisons by using the drop-down menus. Click the [⇒] symbol for more background on each disagreement.
Countries not listed in the dropdown menus above are generally identical to the US in their boundary views. Comment below if you’d like another country added.
I started poking around in map localization after a Bing Maps evangelist pointed out to me that developers could rely on Bing’s automatic localization service to avoid running afoul of local laws: develop your AirBnB challenger without having to worry about whether you’re listing a Kashmir vacation rental under the wrong set of authoritarian guidelines. Geopolitical hedging as a service! Microsoft will ensure that you won’t cause an international incident.
Other researchers have done excellent work in documenting the extent of the hedging. India’s parliament is considering an even more restrictive map law that would punish “wrong depiction of map of India” with up to seven years of imprisonment and/or a $1.5 million fine. Considering how firmly India, China, and Russia enforce their pet maps, Microsoft and Google show remarkable divergence in which borders they personalize: Bing Maps shows Kashmir as part of Pakistan when viewed from Pakistan; Google serves up dotted lines. Only Bing shows Argentina’s claim to a slice of Antarctica; only Google acknowledges China’s conquest of the South China Sea.
I’m a pragmatist, and recognize that Google and Microsoft can’t possibly take a principled stand on every restriction from an authoritarian government; the penalty for that might be complete banishment, and replacement with some homegrown service whose managers are even more pliant—hardly an effective way to bring about transparency and universal access to information. The countries that demand particular border representations come off looking worse here; with their maps lined up against those of the rest of the world, they look isolated—China is the only country whose map doesn’t acknowledge Taiwan’s independence; Russia is the only country that insists its citizens see Crimea separated from Ukraine with a solid border.
It is a well-noted irony that, while the Internet makes it possible to openly distribute information just about anywhere, it also makes it possible to target and obscure that information with unprecedented efficiency. We’re given news that’s calculated to appeal to our political sensibilities and ads that appeal to our tastes and habits, but this kind of map filtering is much more sinister: government ministers are able to pick a reality on behalf of their people, building filter bubbles that span entire countries and support deeply-held national creation myths and security fears.