A little ambiguity gets Google off the hook over Taiwan

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You may well deal with user interface issues all the time - but have you ever handled one that had geopolitical implications?

Consider Google Analytics, the free web analysis tool that gives you an in-depth look at the people coming to your site and what they're doing there.

Google Analytics includes a Map Overlay view that shows you where in the world your traffic is coming from. (Mouse over a particular country, and it lights up - accompanied by a little box with the country name and the number of people who surfed your site from there.)

Simple enough. But Google has a problem: Taiwan.

Map showing locations of China and Taiwan

China has never recognized Taiwanese independence, and insists on seeing that territory as a breakaway province - with the implication that it will one day return to the fold. And as a condition of diplomatic relations with other countries, China insist that they not formally recognize Taiwan's sovereignty. (Taiwan, for its part, refers to itself as the Republic of China, and claims as its territory Taiwan, Mainland China, northern Burma and various sizable chunks of other countries.)

So most of the rest of the world walks on eggshells when it comes to Taiwan's status. And as a company enthusiastically doing business with China - a relationship that has drawn some heavy fire from Google's critics - Google has to follow suit.

Which brings us to Map Overlay. Very handy tool, that. But if you're Google, how do you handle displaying results from Taiwan - potentially useful to your users, but inflammatory to a government whose goodwill you rely on?

Have a look at Google's solution. This is what the analytics map looks like when you drill down to Eastern Asia:

Map of East Asia

Here's what happens when you mouse over China:

Map of Eastern Asia, China highlighted

China lights up - and so does Taiwan. The box identifies the country as China.

But before you conclude that Google has knuckled under to pressure from Beijing, move your mouse over Taiwan:

Map of Eastern Asia with Taiwan highlighted

Again, China and Taiwan are both highlighted ... but now the box identifies the country as "Taiwan".

At first, I thought this was a bug. But now I'm inclined to believe this is Google's face-saving solution, one that gives users the information they're looking for while telling two governments with diametrically opposed viewpoints, "You're both right!"


Ian Clysdale says

July 17, 2008 - 6:46am
Then, on the other hand, there's the questioned states that don't have the financial resources of Taiwan. Being a big geek, I had to go and check for a few of them. Not only do (no big surprise) Palestine, Tibet, and Abkhazia not show up separately in Google Analytics, even more interesting was what happened when typing them in to Google Maps. While typing Abkhazia (a breakaway republic of Georgia, with "communist" leadership and strong ties to Russia) simply gives "We could not understand the location Abkhazia," typing in Tibet automatically transforms it to China : Xizang , and (my favourite) typing in Palestine gives you Palestine, Texas.

Hugh Grigg says

December 23, 2012 - 10:04am
In reply to Ian Clysdale above, I'd say it's got at least as much to do with American support of Taiwanese independence as Taiwan's financial status.

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