Hundreds of millions of users around the world use Google Earth. Many of them have strong -- and sometimes conflicting -- opinions about how places should be named and where borders should be drawn. Disputes over place names and territorial borders exist in nearly every region, and constitute some of the most emotionally charged geopolitical issues in the world today. Since we launched Google Earth in 2004, we have done our best to anticipate these controversies and to address them in a principled, rigorous, and consistent way.

We want Google Earth to merit users' trust as an authoritative reference for geographic information; to do that we're aiming to be transparent about the policies we follow when we encounter sensitive geopolitical disputes. In this blog post, I present our approach to naming bodies of water. In future blog posts, I'll discuss our policies on issues like place names, border locations, the content of placemarks generated by the Google Earth community, and the reasons for the blurred imagery that appears in a number of locations.

Like any cartographic publisher, our policies have come under scrutiny from many groups, particularly when multiple countries disagree about the correct name for a shared body of water. While most bodies of water have a common name (think "Pacific Ocean"), others are called different names by different countries and cultures. Some variations in placenames are attributable to language-based variations (think "Germany" in English, "l'Allemagne" in French, "Deutschland" in German, etc.). Other differences, however, reflect broader political, historical, or cultural disputes. For example, the body of water between the Japanese archipelago and the Korean peninsula is known as the "Sea of Japan" in Japan, but as the "East Sea" in South Korea.

As the publishers of a geographic reference tool, we believe that Google should not choose sides in international geopolitical disputes. For this reason, we've chosen to implement a uniform policy of Primary Local Usage.

Under this policy, the English Google Earth client displays the primary, common, local name(s) given to a body of water by the sovereign nations that border it. If all bordering countries agree on the name, then the common single name is displayed (e.g. "Caribbean Sea" in English, "Mar Caribe" in Spanish, etc.). But if different countries dispute the proper name for a body of water, our policy is to display both names, with each label placed closer to the country or countries that use it.

One of the great features of Google Earth is that it enables us to provide significantly greater amounts of information than flat paper maps. So in addition to showing both disputed names, we also provide a clickable text box that provides some more detailed explanatory text. For example, if you click on the "Yellow Sea" or "West Sea" placemarks, you will get: "The Yellow Sea is the common English name associated with this maritime feature, known in China as Huáng Hǎi or 黄海 (Mandarin). In Korea, this feature is commonly referred to as the West Sea; in Korean Sŏ Hae or 서해 (Hangul)".

For language clients other than English, we display only the preferred name in the relevant language. For example, the Japanese client of Google Earth shows "Sea of Japan" in Japanese (日本海), while the Korean version shows "East Sea" in Korean (동해). In these cases, we still include both labels in the click-box political annotation. We believe this solution makes our product more helpful to users in each language by presenting the name they expect to see, but without sidestepping the existence of a disputed alternative name. In that way, we provide more, rather than less, information while maintaining a good user interface and experience.

When our policy says that we display the "primary, common, local" names for a body of water, each of those three adjectives has an important and distinct meaning. By saying "primary", we aim to include names of dominant use, rather than having to add every conceivable local nickname or variation. By saying "common", we mean to include names which are in widespread daily use, rather than giving immediate recognition to any arbitrary governmental re-naming. In other words, if a ruler announced that henceforth the Pacific Ocean would be named after her mother, we would not add that placemark unless and until the name came into common usage. Finally, by saying "local", we aim to reflect the primary and common names used by countries that actually border the body of water, as they are the countries recognized under international law as having a special sovereign stake in it.

In our view, the Primary Local Usage rule generates the optimal combination of neutrality, objectivity, and legitimacy. We also hope that it meets the expectations of the vast majority of our users and demonstrates the proper sensitivity to these important geopolitical disputes.

Alternative Policies We Considered

As we worked our way through the current set of disputed names for bodies of water, we considered and ultimately decided against several alternative policy approaches, including:

Authoritative International Institutions. We considered attempting to extricate Google entirely from the problem of deciding placenames by simply deferring to the determinations of an existing, authoritative, multilateral or multistakeholder institution. Under this policy, we would simply adopt in toto the naming choices set by that body, without exercising any independent judgment of our own. In particular, we considered using the publications and documents of the United Nations Cartographic Section as the authoritative references for naming bodies of water. Under scrutiny, though, the U.N. Cartographic Section's publications do not provide the level of coverage and detail that we hope to achieve for Google Earth. Moreover, quite understandably, the United Nations as an institution does not take official positions on geographical names (which would occasionally require it to take sides among the competing claims of two or more member states), but instead the Cartographic Section only issues guidance in the form of "informational practices" for use in U.N. documents and publications. Moreover, the U.N. is viewed by some as a politicized organization, favoring the claims of some countries and regions over others. Also within the U.N. system, we looked at the reports of the U.N. Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, which convenes every five years. That Conference, however, does not take positions on geopolitical disputes between countries, and so reliance on its reports is not a realistic option.

We also considered adopting the names used by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), an international group that works, among other things, to standardize nautical charts and documents. But the IHO's naming work in recent decades has focused on (a) the naming of undersea features, and (b) setting the boundaries and limits of oceans and seas. It has not undertaken to resolve current geopolitical disputes. Moreover, the organization's membership includes the national hydrographic offices of fewer than half of all countries.

Geographic Organizations. We considered adopting the naming conventions of one or more widely-respected national-level geographic organizations like the US National Geographic Society and the UK Royal Geographical Society. But these organizations exist only in a handful of large, rich economies, and many believe they do not represent the views and values of other parts of the world. They also occasionally reach differing conclusions on names and naming conventions, and it would be difficult to set a neutral, objective rule for deciding which organization to follow.

Academics. Finally, we also considered conducting a survey of credentialed geography academics to assess their views as to the proper name(s) to be displayed. But this option too is fraught with likely bias -- the mere process of choosing which academics to survey would be highly subjective. And we reasoned that if our chosen experts were evenly split or undecided, we'd still be no closer to delegating the responsibility to outside authorities.

All things considered, we believe that the Primary Local Usage rule, if rigorously and evenhandedly applied, is a better choice than any of these three alternatives. Of course, we recognize that this policy will leave some people unhappy about a resulting name that is displayed for each disputed body of water. But we hope they will accept that showing all the names of primary and common use by all the countries bordering a body of water is fair and diplomatic.

Perhaps most importantly, we also recognize that we have no monopoly on geographic truth. Debate about the right policies and practices for Google Earth is valuable. Happily enough, one of the great features of Google Earth is its ability to support the creation and display of data layers by an interested person. It is our fervent hope that different communities will use Google Earth as an open platform to create content that accurately reflects their views. We welcome additions to our community and web layers so that users can access all points of view.