Google sped up Maps change over Taiwan name conflict

Google accelerates UI upgrade to help resolve Taiwanese government protest

Google sped up a merger of its mapping services to help resolve a Taiwanese government protest against the island's listing in Google Maps, which had referred to it as "Taiwan, Province of China."

The change, announced exactly one week ago, merged the technologies behind Google Local and Google Maps. It resulted in a completely new user interface (UI), including bigger maps, and did away with an area on Google Maps where the name "Taiwan, Province of China" had been displayed beside the map of Taiwan.

"We accelerated our UI upgrade given the attention that was focused on a soon to be defunct part of the UI," a Google representative said via e-mail.

A representative from Taiwan's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Google representatives had met with Taiwanese officials from its San Francisco office to hear their complaint over the name issue. Taiwan is satisfied with the change, no matter how it came about, he said.

Taiwanese media had widely characterized the resolution of the issue as Google caving in to pressure from Taiwanese politicians. The Google representative said her company is sensitive to such complaints, but did not agree with the media reports.

It's a creative resolution to an issue that could easily have escalated for Google. Had the company simply changed the Google Maps reference, it would likely have faced China's wrath due to a long standing dispute it has with the island.

China views Taiwan as a renegade province and has threatened to attack the island if it seeks independence. But most people in Taiwan take a different view and don't consider the island part of the People's Republic of China. The two sides split in 1949 after a bitter civil war, and the name issue has remained a small but potent cold-war battleground between them ever since.

Taiwanese athletes, for example, can only attend the Olympics as representatives of 'Chinese Taipei,' and Taiwan is known officially as the 'Republic of China' while China is the 'People's Republic of China.'

In fact, Google may yet get an earful from China. A representative of the Chinese government in San Francisco, Consul General Peng Keyu, opposed the name change and plans to meet with Google, according to a news report on popular Chinese portal Sina.com.cn.

Despite the trouble, China has recently allowed Google's free Web log service, Blogger, to be accessed directly by Internet users in Beijing. In addition, the cache function on Google's search engine is also now accessible from inside China.

Chinese access to Blogger was apparently blocked by government censors in 2002, around the same time that users who attempted to access Google's Web site, http://www.google.com/, were being redirected to one of several Chinese search engines, most likely because DNS records had been changed to block access to the U.S.-based search engine.

As for the name issue, Google had insisted that its usages came from internationally authoritative sources, to be consistent. The United Nations, for example, officially uses "Taiwan Province of China."

But Taiwan would not likely have been mollified by the excuse. One Taiwanese political party had been trying to stir up a public e-mail protest against Google over the issue, telling the island's 23 million citizens to make their voices heard by writing to the company.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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