How Google’s open-ended maps are embroiling the company in some of the world’s touchiest geopolitical disputes.
One fateful day in early August, Google Maps turned Arunachal Pradesh Chinese. It happened without warning. One minute, the mountainous border state adjacent to Tibet was labeled with its usual complement of Indian place-names; the next it was sprinkled with Mandarin characters, like a virtual annex of the People’s Republic.
The error could hardly have been more awkward. Governed by India but claimed by China, Arunachal Pradesh has been a source of rankling dispute between the two nations for decades. Google’s sudden relabeling of the province gave the appearance of a special tip of the hat toward Beijing. Its timing, moreover, was freakishly bad: the press noticed that Google’s servers had started splaying Mandarin place-names all over the state only a few hours before Indian and Chinese negotiating teams sat down for talks in New Delhi to work toward resolving the delicate border issue.
Google rushed to admit its mistake, but not before a round of angry Indian blog posts and news articles had flourished online. Some commentators posited outright conspiracy between Beijing and the search engine. “Google Maps has always been more biased towards China over the Arunachal Pradesh border dispute,” surmised an Indian blogger. Even more ominously, one former member of Parliament told the Times of India, “The Chinese know how to time their statements ahead of a bilateral meeting.”
Google responded in a manner that radiated chilly omnipresence—by posting a statement in the comments section of what appeared to be every single Web site that had discussed the mix-up. “The change was a result of a mistake in our processing of new map data,” Google announced. “We are in the process of reverting the data to its previous state, and expect the change to be visible in the product shortly.”
One mystery remained, however: how did such an error happen in “the product” in the first place? Why did Google have that perfect set of Chinese names lying around, ready to swap in for the Indian ones?