Google Seeks Talks With Taiwan Over Maps

Google Inc. has been in touch with Taiwanese representatives in San Francisco to work on resolving a dispute over the island’s listing in Google Maps, which refers to it as "Taiwan, Province of China."

Taiwanese officials insist its name should read simply "Taiwan," leaving out the reference to China. The name issue has remained a small but important cold-war battleground between China and Taiwan ever since the two split in 1949 after a bitter civil war won by the Communist Party.

One Taiwanese political party has even been trying to stir up a public e-mail protest against Google Maps over the issue, telling the island’s 23 million citizens to make their voices heard by writing to the company.

"We’ve already received a few e-mails," a Google spokeswoman said Wednesday. "But until today, we had not received any communication from Taiwanese officials regarding this matter. We made contact with them this morning and look forward to hearing and understanding their concerns."

Taiwanese officials have said they first contacted Google last month, and then instructed a Taiwanese representative office in San Francisco a few days ago to raise the issue again.

The matter could take some time to resolve. While the Google spokeswoman indicated that the company tries to be flexible in name disputes, it generally follows international naming conventions, such as ISO-3166. The company also has to consider China’s response.

Google Earth and Google Maps use short, user-friendly name labels on the maps, she said. But for some searches on Google Maps only, another rendering appears in the corner of the screen. In this case it is "Taiwan, Province of China."

Google insists that it uses internationally authoritative sources to come up with the tags, to remain consistent in its name choices. The United Nations, for example, officially uses "Taiwan Province of China," according to the U.N. Web site.

Taiwan and China have been fighting for years over the name issue. China demands that the world recognize Taiwan as a part of China, its "One-China" policy, and works diligently at ensuring international groups such as the United Nations don’t recognize the island as a separate political entity. China threatened years ago to attack Taiwan if it declares independence.

On Taiwan’s part, the island has distanced itself from China in recent years, in an effort to maintain its self-rule and continue its development as a high tech center and one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia. People on the island argue that despite China’s economic development, it still denies freedoms of speech and of the press, denies the right to establish new political parties, and is often named as an abuser of human rights.

In the past, Google has compromised on names to keep the peace among users of its mapping services.

On Google Earth, which shows satellite imagery maps and has more room for labels, the company used to refer to the "Sea of Japan," to describe the sliver of ocean between the southern tip of Korea and lower Japan. South Korean activists asked for the name to be changed to its preference, the "East Sea." Google finally determined to put both "East Sea" and "Sea of Japan" together for the label.

Google Maps, which is still gathering detailed maps from around the world, is designed to help people find their way around, and location data comes mainly from local map makers, the Google spokeswoman said. Google Earth is different in that it’s meant to present clear satellite images of the world, with graphics that reveal specific geographic features.

Google Maps still refers to the "Sea of Japan" in Japanese, and not the "East Sea." There is no English reference to that body of water.

By Dan Nystedt - IDG News Service (Taipei Bureau)

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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