NOT SO LONG AGO, search giant Google was caught in the middle of a political dispute between Taiwan and China.

One of the world's largest accountancy firms, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, got sued by a respected Chinese professor.

The cause in both cases :  a few words on a Web site that have some deeply held beliefs. The result, for both countries, was a public relation disaster in an important new market. Many other multinationals are at risk of similar embarrassment.

In China it's unwise to refer to the neighbouring island of Taiwan as a ''country'', ''state'' or  ''nation''. Although Taiwan has defacto independence, in China it's legally regarded as part of the motherland.

Just later, a professor of accountancy in Shanghai filed suit against Deloitte after noticing that the company's corporate Web site casually included Taiwan in a list of countries.

''The feelings of the Chinese people are hurt by such indignities,'' pouted the professor, demanding an apology and $12,000. Deloitte altered the Web site and made a public apology.   

With media-savvy politicians and lawyers ready to pounce on p.r.gaffes, multinationals are struggling to create Web sites that please everyone.

When companies talk about places whose sovereignty or borders are disputed , they are entering a minefield where seemingly innocuous words like  ''nation''  are primed to explode.

Outsiders often underestimate the depth of feeling.

In China legal actions by individuals, like that taken by Deloitte, is unlikely to succeed. Five years ago Chinese plaintiffs demanded a total of more than $12 million from opticsmaker Canon in a pair of similar cases, which involved both the company's published promotional materials and its Web site.

The complaints were dropped after Canon executives made public and personal apologies and agreed to remove all contentious wording from the company's Web sites, said Yasuhiro Suzuki, director of Canon China's publicity and advertising division.

Suzuki also said that Canon paid no money to to any of the parties in the cases.

The court that matters in thee cases, of course, is that of public opinion. Multinational companies like Deloitte and Google are expanding boldly in Asia, particularly in China, so this kind of most unwelcome.

''If you upset people online, it really can impact your business,'' says Sean Krepp, director for online marketing at Nokia, one of the world's largest phone maker.

''When we are adding pages to a local Web site, we first test everything with consumers in the local environment............to get their feedback,'' says Krepp. Only after careful checking does the site go live.

For example Nokia's China Web site is vetted to ensure that Taiwan is never referred to as a country. Typical neutral words like  ''area''  or  ''location''  are used instead. ''It's certainly not a political agenda,'' says Krepp. ''We're very much a political.''

Responding to advice from offices in Asia, UPS went about updating its Web sites to deal with politically sensitive terminology. Fixing problems takes time and money. ''The cost to make those changes was considerable and definitely took lead time,'' said John Flick, director of international public relations at UPS.

There's another reason some companies stand pat, says Flick of UPS. ''In our shipping applications we do have country drop-down lists that include Taiwan. The issue here is usability. If we change the field label to  'location'-

Which includes 200 plus countries-  you can imagine how how nonintuitive that would be.

Imagine thinking of the United States as a location, not a country. So we could avoid some potential issues but reduce the usability for around 95% of our users that aren't in Taiwan or China.

Even if you do choose words so timorously neutral that you risk confusing your customers, sometimes there is no safe middle ground, no way to please everyone. Nor is it easy to control access to areas of Web site that might offend sensibilities somewhere.

A technological solution is available. It's possible for companies to serve up different Web site pages to visitors depending on their location. Multinationals already use this technology for a variety of purposes.

Including preventing users from buying products and services that are illegal in their regions, says Marie Alexander, chief executive of Quova, one of the number of companies providing this technology.

While it would be simple to use geolocation to provide a tailored politically correct version of a Web site to different audiences and to block access to other parts of the site, Alexander knows of no company doing so.

So, on Political Netiquette : It borders on the impossible to please everyone when it comes to contested territories.

Technology can help those willing to commit the resources. A point,   !WOW! should heed when it plans the global portal.    

With respectful dedication to the Students, Professors and Teachers of the world. See Ya all on !WOW!  -the World Students Society Computers-Internet-Wireless:

''' Gasp-Gasp '''

Good Night and God bless

SAM Daily Times - the Voice of the Voiceless


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