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Friday, October 07, 2005

Taiwan wants Google to apologize

Taiwan wants Google to apologizeTaiwan wants Google to apologize
MAP CALLS ISLAND CHINESE PROVINCE, RAISING PROTESTS
By April Lynch
Mercury News

Google's ambitious global mapping effort may push the edges of geography, but the Internet giant is learning that new maps can't escape old politics.

Taiwan is demanding that the search engine change its recently launched Google Maps, which currently displays the name ``Taiwan, Province of China'' next to a map of the island. An apology wouldn't hurt either, Taiwan's vice president told reporters Thursday. The map name is quickly raising anger throughout Taiwan, a technology powerhouse with close ties to Silicon Valley.

A Google spokeswoman says the company is reviewing the issue. The controversial name appears only on Google Maps, not other Google features, and appears because of outside data chosen to help build the map service, said company spokeswoman Debbie Frost.

By listing Taiwan as it did on Google Maps, the company has found itself in the middle of one of Asia's trickiest political problems.

Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, separated from China in 1949 after a long civil war. The island has since been self-governed, and in the last two decades has evolved into a stable democracy with one of Asia's strongest economies.

China, however, regards Taiwan as a renegade province and says the island is part of China. It has threatened to reclaim the island by military force if it officially declares its independence. China has also pushed the international community to recognize its claims.

That stance has largely worked -- but also has its limits. Twenty-six countries still have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but the island has no seat at the United Nations. Most countries, including the United States, do not have formal relations with Taiwan but maintain close ties and urge both sides to find a peaceful solution to the stalemate.

The result is a sort of uneasy limbo for Taiwan, a balance delicate enough to be threatened by the name on an Internet map.

Google's ``information about Taiwan is totally wrong,'' said David Lu, spokesman for the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco. ``We have our sovereignty, our own territory, and 23 million people.''

The dispute goes beyond names, potentially confusing Web users who need practical information, Lu said. Someone planning to travel to Taiwan, for example, might see the map and then head to the wrong diplomatic office to apply for a visa.

``Where will they think they should go?'' Lu said. ``They come to our offices in the United States, not any consul general office of China. This is all incorrect.''

Many other maps and Web sites reflect Taiwan's delicate balancing act. The U.S. State Department's online information on Taiwan gives the island its own separate country page, while stating the U.S. position vis-a-vis both Taiwan and China. Some other online maps simply list the island as ``Taiwan'' without wading into issues of political domain.

In building Google Maps, Google relied on data from ``internationally authoritative sources,'' Frost said. While it reviews Taiwan's complaints, the company will also take a closer look at its overall map naming.

``We will be taking this opportunity to more broadly review our user interfaces and policies when it comes to labeling maps,'' Frost said.

China often pressures companies doing business there to follow its political directives, and Google plans to open a research center in China. While some groups in Taiwan have accused Google of trying to curry favor with officials in Beijing, Lu said he considered the map naming to be an error, not a deliberate decision to take sides.

``I tend to believe this is an oversight by Google,'' he said, adding that Taiwan officials based in the Bay Area have asked Google for a meeting.

Frost said the company is working to address the issue quickly. ``We have just received their letter which we are reviewing, and look forward to understanding their concerns,'' she said.
Contact April Lynch at alynch@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5539.

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