Taxes: Geopolitics

One frequently-overlooked software "tax" is geopolitics. We've alread seen that the time zone and regional settings dialogs created international unrest. It appears that Google Maps failed to recognize the extremely sensitive issue of naming the body of water that lies between Korea and Japan, as well as stirring up international tensions with the way it labelled the island of Taiwan. Like many issues regarding naming, these subjects are tied up in history with strong feelings on both sides. (And Google's efforts to placate the Taiwanese government only served to anger the Chinese government. Welcome to the big time.) As we saw in the time zone example, deferring to United Nations-approved boundaries or terminology is not always sufficient to calm the parties involved in a dispute.

This is why you tend to see the word "region" used in Microsoft products instead of "country". There are still many parts of the world where sovereignty is a highly contentious issue. If you call something a "country", you have effectively "taken sides" in a dispute you probably would be better off staying out of.

Geopolitics wasn't so much of an issue in the past, where you could control where in the world your program was running by virtue of controlling where your distributors are. But with the Internet, everything you post instantly becomes available to an international audience.

Unfortunately, I don't have any good advice on this particular tax. My personal rule is "Stay far, far away from maps."

Comments (23)
  1. Universalis says:

    I thought that both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China agreed that the mainland and the island of Taiwan form one country with only one legitimate government?

  2. Gabe says:

    The problem is that the people of Taiwan consider themselves to be a separate country, while the people of mainland China consider Taiwan to be part of their country.

  3. Bill says:

    Perhaps the disagreeing parties should be punished by being excluded from these services. If Google Maps displayed a black box over Taiwan and a large portion of China, or the Windows time zone selctor simply omitted whatever eastern European countries are acting up this month the people there would get the message that we do not approve.

  4. James Day says:

    Try to display a block over China. What territory is China? Does it include disputed areas like the islands it and Japan disagree about? Include them in the block and you get one argument, don’t include them and you get another.

    You really can’t win with these things.

    When Microsoft starts saying "we do not approve" it’s is one quick way to get Microsoft prohibited from all government, perhaps any, business in the country concerned. Of course, local software producers might welcome the incentive that offers to local software firms so it’s likely that there would be a local group advocating the step.

  5. Kiznit says:

    Bill: and who are you to punish them?

  6. Bill says:

    Good points. In this case it’s not my software so I have no say at all, and am no one to punish them.

    I guess my point is that if it were my software I would choose not to play with them at all until they decide to play nice.

  7. anon says:

    You know, it seems that atlases have had these issues solved for a very long time. Is there a major ruckus whenever Rand McNally publishes a new world atlas?

    Looking at a couple of atlases, most solve the problem with some comment about "claimed by" and "administered by". Also, areas that are claimed by multiple parties are indicated with different border markings than undisputed areas.

    Last, regarding Raymond’s post comment about the Sea of Japan and East Sea dilemma, I checked a couple of atlases I have, and they all call it the Sea of Japan. Therefore, with an albeit small sample, I think that in US atlases Sea of Japan would be the right terminology.

    What this really tells me is that the maps (including borders and names) have to be localized much like everything else. The US version should correspond to terminology accepted by (say) the US gov’t, and similarly for other countries. Its not very practical, but everywhere you go people have maps in their local language… [Come to think of it, all printed maps have the center of the map on a different meridian — US maps are centered so that Asia is split in two and European ones are centered around 0′, while East Asian ones show East Asia in the center… Why don’t people complain about this too??]

    </rant> Sorry. Can we all get along?

  8. Lets say a big dictatorship (Nazi Germany) and a small democracy (Czech Republic) have an argument. Big dictatorship wants people to start referring to small democracy as "Province of <big dictatorship>". Not too hard to decide what to call the Taiwan, Republic of China now is it.

  9. Cooney says:


    > I guess my point is that if it were my software I would choose not to play with them at all until they decide to play nice.

    What exactly does that entail? Do China and Taiwan need to agree on who runs bartertown in order to use your software?

  10. Derek says:

    Wow, I totally thought Bill was being sarcastic until his second comment.

    Andrew, that’s not how the issue between China and Taiwan went started. Your comparison is terribly flawed.

  11. Norman Diamond says:

    Vista has two solutions to this problem.

    (1) Start by assuming that every installation is being performed under California Daylight Time or California Standard Time. Yeah I know California isn’t the capital of the US, but I couldn’t say District of Columbia because Vista doesn’t assume that.

    (2) After installation completes (which has been observed with non-checked builds of beta 1), use made-up names for time zones, differing from names standardized by the countries involved. And impose daylight savings time on countries who otherwise wouldn’t even know they have it.

  12. bramster says:

    You can’t please everyone, you’ve gotta please yourself.

    Ricky Nelson

  13. Jon says:

    I think Universalis was maybe being a bit obscure. The Taiwanese government was originally the Chinese government. Although I think they’ve given this position up now, after moving to Taiwan in 1948, they maintained that they were still the legitimate government of China (and retained the Chinese seat at the UN). Universalis was joking that both the PRC and Taiwan believe* that the mainland and the island are one country, with one legitimate government, they just differ about which government that is…

    * though as above, I don’t think Taiwan maintains that position any more

  14. Craig says:

    The Taiwan/China thing gets into places you might not expect – like locale choosers.

    In China, the name of Taiwan includes the word China. It does NOT in Taiwan.

    Now think about trying to engineer a product for sale in Taiwan that is being manufactured in China, where someone might notice that the locale name does not say the right thing…

  15. Kevin Eshbach says:

    Hmmm, I also wondered what happened to that feature. At first I thought I was hallucinating when that feature disappeared in subsequent OS releases.

  16. Bill says:

    I am about 2/3rds sarcastic… But really,

    One, why should a software publisher, large or small, be pulled into any geopolitical dispute? Sure the ‘blacked out’ part of the map has problems, but it sure says "To heck with you if you cant get along."

    Two, what is wrong with a software publisher taking sides, or a stand against something they disagree with? No one would complain if Excel’s EULA said that it could not be used to administer an ethnic cleansing. (and Andrew already invoked Godwin’s law)

  17. Gabe says:

    The problem that Bill doesn’t seem to realize is that countries that have a beef with your software may just decide to ban it from their countries. China and India collectively are about a third of the world’s population. That’s a huge chunk of the market you’ll lose because you don’t want to play geopolitics.

  18. sr says:

    Just label it "Formosa" – would either China object?

    Or do a "whoever can call me from X gets to name it"…

  19. Darius says:

    It never fails to amaze me how immature and divorced from reality politicians are.

    I speak from the position of having had to create an international database where a country could not be called a ‘country’ in the schema or the interface because China would kick up a stink about Taiwan being in the list (for lack of a better place to put it – it is a ‘country’ as far as issuing passports are concerned, you see). So we shrugged our shoulders, called it something else and just accepted that these individuals are complete idiots.

  20. Tony Cox [MS] says:

    I think it’s easy to say that "these people are idiots" when you’re an American and nobody ever tries to sell you software which labels your home as being part of another country.

    Point being, cultures differ in different regions. What appears trivial to people from one culture may in fact be highly emotive to people from another. If you’re in the business of selling software globally, it pays to take account of these differences.

  21. Long Wang says:

    What really pays off is to sell the naming to the highest bidder.

  22. RichB says:

    Many sites can and do run geolocation software to obtain the location of the current web useragent. They do this usually to comply with statutory law in the country in which the useragent resides. For example, gambling companies restrict or ban certain activities in the US, Australia and the Netherlands because of local laws.

    It would be trivial for Google to do the same with Google Maps.

  23. Norman Diamond says:

    Monday, December 05, 2005 3:02 AM by RichB

    > Many sites can and do run geolocation

    > software to obtain the location of the

    > current web useragent. They do this usually

    > to comply with statutory law in the country

    > in which the useragent resides.

    Does useragent mean proxy? I’ve seen at least one web site figure out which country a proxy was located in, but I’ve never seen one reliably figure out which country an end user was located in.

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