Apple’s Crimea Map Switch Opens Up Bigger Issue of ‘Being Played’ By Putin, Critics Say

Courtesy of Apple

After Apple came under fire last week for making Crimea appear as a part of Russia for users in the country, the iPhone maker says is “taking a deeper look” at how it handles disputed borders.

The decision to redraw the map for users inside Russia, while showing users outside the country a different map, was criticized as a move that is pandering to and normalizing Vladimir Putin’s actions, while ignoring that the international community, including the U.S., recognizes Crimea as a part of Ukraine.

According to a statement released by Apple, the company says it was complying with a local law, which is why the map was updated inside of Russia. Apple also said that no additional changes were made to Apple Maps outside of Russia. From outside of Russia, Crimea is labeled but appears to be in an ambiguous spot, neither a part of Russia or Ukraine.

Apple further explained that it reviews “international law as well as relevant U.S. and other domestic laws before making a determination in labeling on our Maps and make changes if required by law.”

“We are taking a deeper look at how we handle disputed borders in our services and may make changes in the future as a result,” the statement says. “Our intention is to make sure our customers can enjoy using Maps and other Apple services, everywhere in the world.”

Dora Chomiak, an American of Ukrainian heritage who has regularly traveled to Ukraine for the past 30 years for her work as a strategy consultant, says this is a familiar feeling for Ukrainians.

“Ukraine has been systematically erased off the map so many times,” she says. She tells Fortune that growing up in the 1980s, she wasn’t able to point to where her grandparents were born in Ukraine for a school project, because it was “no longer on the map.”

“Apple is capitulating to the Kremlin’s requirements and it’s like, you guys are being played,” she says. “But they’re not the only ones getting played. The Kremlin has been doing this for a long time.”

Apple’s border change has also opened up a discussion into whether technology companies can be used to parrot the talking points and beliefs of governments, even if they are not accepted by the international community.

Google also has a similar policy of following local laws when it comes to deciding how borders and names are displayed.

“We make every effort to objectively depict the disputed regions, and where we have local versions of Google Maps, we follow local legislation when displaying names and borders,” the company says in a statement to Fortune.

Apple has a history of citing local laws after making controversial changes. It recently removed a maps app that was designed to help users in Hong Kong navigate around areas of protest. In another example, Apple removed the Taiwanese flag from the emoji keyboard of users in mainland China, and recently followed up by removing it for users in Hong Kong and Macau. Apple said it was complying with local laws in both cases.

The issue stems from Russian forces taking control of Crimea, a large peninsula located on the north side of the Black Sea, in 2014. The international community has refused to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia and views the territory as rightfully belonging to Ukraine. The U.S. State Department issued a ‘Crimea Declaration‘ in July 2018, rejecting “Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea” and pledged “to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.”

On Thanksgiving, the Ukrainian Embassy in the U.S. called out Apple in a tweet.

“We guess Ukrainians not giving thanks to Apple this Thanksgiving!” it says.

Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who now lives in New York, writes on Twitter that American technology companies need to “call Putin’s bluff.”

“Software is soft power. American tech companies should stand up for the values of innovation that made their success possible, not bow down to dictators for a little extra cash they don’t even need,” he says.

“Where is the backlash?” he adds. “American consumers have the power to change the world for the better by protesting against such things, from Crimea to Hong Kong. Stop letting tech companies & tyrants have it both ways.”

Chomiak agrees and says it raises a larger question of the power technology companies have, how they use it, but also the power customers can have in voicing their say with their wallets.

“As citizens, we are behind in understanding what technology companies do and demanding they be responsible citizens of this planet,” she says. “This is yet another example of Apple going around and making money and saying. ‘We are here for the customers,’ but does that mean they ignore the rule of law, international borders?”

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