Google Maps displays Crimean border differently in Russia, US

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The U.S. sees Crimea as "occupied territory," as the government said in a recent statement. But in Russia, Google's Maps division now shows the peninsula as part of Russian territory. America and its allies have refused to accept the region's separatists' move to join Russia.

A look at the maps available on two Google Maps web addresses – one ending in .com and another in .ru – shows the disparity. In Russia, web visitors see a solid line dividing Crimea from neighboring Ukraine. In the U.S., a dotted line separates the two, implying a disputed status within the country.

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NPR's Corey Flintoff reports:

"If you check Google Maps from the United States, you'll see Crimea portrayed as part of Ukraine. If you check from Russia, you'll see an international boundary drawn between Ukraine and the Black Sea peninsula, indicating that Crimea is part of Russia.

"A spokeswoman for Google Russia told the Itar-Tass news agency that Google follows local laws on representing borders — and since Russia claims Crimea, that's represented on the Russia version of the map.

"Google says it tries to be objective in marking disputed regions in various parts of the world."

The tech company's approach also reflects its need to follow the laws wherever its servers are located. Many countries keep a close eye on maps that cover disputed areas.

"Google maintains different versions of their mapping platform in different countries," John Gravois of Pacific Standard magazine tells NPR guest host Tess Vigeland on Weekend All Things Considered. "Last time I counted, there were over 30."

Other companies that create widely referenced maps have taken slightly different tacks on the Crimea issue.

"National Geographic has done sort of a version of what Google has done," says Gravois. "They note the border, but they shade Crimea differently from the rest of Russia, or Ukraine."

Rand-McNally has a different approach, he says. Following the lead of the U.S. State Department, the mapmaker continues to show Crimea as part of Ukraine.

Gravois says the sensitivity over how countries and territories are depicted on maps is both old and real.

"Historically, the most powerful mapmaker in the world was often the most powerful country in the world," he says. He adds that for many years, that distinction was held by the British Empire.

Instead of making one binding decision, Google can represent the viewpoints of different states in its maps, Gravois says.

But that doesn't mean everyone is happy with its approach. Take, for instance, the tech company's portrayal of the same body of water as the Persian Gulf for users in Iran and as the Arabian Gulf for those in neighboring states.

"And in the process," he says, Google "infuriates Iranians."

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