Tech giant Apple recently changed the borders of Crimea for users of Apple Maps in Russia.
The disputed peninsula — illegally annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 — is now shown to Russians as part of the Russian Federation.
Apple Maps users outside of Russia will see dashed lines around Crimea — indicating its disputed status — and the landmass is simply labelled “Crimea,” without an assigned country.
Apple said its border change was implemented to adhere to a new Russian law, but in the wake of international criticism, the company now says it is taking “a deeper look” at how it handles disputed borders.
“If Russia fails to comply with international laws, then it just seems ridiculous that a company like Apple decided to comply with Russian rules,” said Maria Romanenko, editor of Ukrainian online news site Hromadske.
The border shift is highlighting the role of online map providers, including Google and Microsoft, in defining accepted international frontiers and sovereignty.
Of course, maps have existed on paper for centuries, but the presence of map apps in everyone’s pocket gives tech giants a huge influence on public perceptions of land disputes and sovereignty movements.
“What has happened, rather than us achieving a global or universally accepted map, is that technology is allowing more and more diversity of the kinds of maps that different people around the world are seeing,” said Alastair Bonnett, a geography professor at Newcastle University in England and an author of numerous popular cartography books.
“Maps are about power and about exerting power, and the modern map is as disputed as the maps of any time in the last century.”
Theoretically, the first place to go to resolve a border dispute is the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands.
The intergovernmental organization facilitates arbitration on international disputes, but many such conflicts are instead resolved through diplomacy, political pressure or the use of force.
That is particularly the case when one region tries to declare independence from another country.
Normally, mapmakers like Google, Apple and Microsoft (owner of Bing Maps) would wait for the global community to recognize a change in a national boundary before they amend their maps.
“People have been asking about what a country is for a long time, and I guess it’s about recognition. That’s the key thing: who recognizes you,” said Bonnett.
“Clearly, at the moment we have a whole bunch of states in the world trying to get recognition and other ones that have limited recognition.”
In short, if enough countries think you’re a country, then you’re a country.
The newest member of the United Nations General Assembly is South Sudan.
It was admitted by acclamation in 2011, but for other aspiring nations, their status is less clear.
Taiwan, Kosovo and the State of Palestine all want to join the UN as full members but have limited international recognition.
Palestine and the Vatican City have UN observer status, but not full membership.
Palestine was granted the status by a majority of UN members (Canada voted against the move), but its full membership was vetoed by the United States — one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with China, France, Russia and the U.K.
Most maps show Palestine with a hatched, disputed border, but it currently has a number of markers of a sovereign nation-state.
Those include a unique international dialling code +970 (Canada’s code is +1, shared with the U.S. and some other nations), an internet top-level domain ‘.ps,’ a FIFA soccer team and a national Olympic committee.
Taiwan has reached many of the same landmarks but is only recognized by 15 UN member states, primarily due to Chinese pressure against any country that decides to recognize Taiwan.
Kosovo has been recognized by more than 100 member states since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Serbia’s close ties with Russia mean that Kosovo’s UN membership has also been blocked.
“It is a very complicated issue from the standpoint of international law,” said Ognjen Gogic, a Serbian political analyst at the NGO Aktiv in Mitrovica, Kosovo.
“You can have endless theoretical discussions about it, but one undoubtable indicator of statehood would be the UN membership.”
Most of us would find it difficult to be sure of a given country’s UN status, but many sports fans will know a nation by its sports stars and teams.
Scotland has always had a FIFA soccer team (it hosted the first-ever international game against England in 1872), but it is not a sovereign nation.
That exposure gives Scottish nationalists a level of international public recognition that many other non-sovereign nations can only dream of.
“Sports has a huge international audience,” said Bonnett.
“It’s become one of the key areas that proto-states, new states, like to get involved in, trying to get a team to the Olympics, or another big international sporting event.”
Despite Kosovo’s 11 years of limbo, arguably its biggest moment of international recognition came at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Majlinda Kelmendi won gold in the women’s 52-kilogram judo event — Kosovo’s first-ever Olympic medal.
“That was the moment of, I would say, the highest national pride,” said Gogic.
“That is something that the people themselves perceive as recognition of statehood rather than any other thing.”
In March 2020, Kosovo’s soccer team will take part in a four-team playoff for a place at UEFA Euro 2020, potentially its first major soccer tournament.
It could be competing against the likes of world champion France, with games watched by tens of millions, yet Kosovo will still be without its own internet domain.
“The reason why Kosovo does not have its internet domain is because it doesn’t have its two- and three-letter standardized country code, which also would require Kosovo to be part of at least of one UN agency, or to have a seat in the UN,” said Gogic.
“I think it has actually exhausted its possibilities. So any further step towards regaining full statehood recognition would actually entail a UN seat.”
Until Kosovo finds a way forward, it could be stuck in sovereignty limbo, with those ambiguous dashed lines marking its borders on map apps.