In that same spirit, my team treated our product—one that allows advertisers around the world to access an international clientele—as culturally agnostic, relevant as much to users locally as to those on the other side of the world. This ethos was itself a source of unspoken pride, an enactment of the tech industry’s righteous calling to bring people together and, in the process, erode the infrastructure at the heart of global conflict.
Paradoxically, this adoption of transnationalism as a matter of principle also seems to be the basis for Silicon Valley’s disengagement from concrete political questions globally. Andy Andersen, who works on international growth at Tinder and is the founder AppLocalization.io, a service that helps brands expand their international presence, explains that most companies aim to “live and let live and allow people to manage their own affairs” when launching a product in a new market. Andersen cited a few exceptions—Tinder’s 2019 decision to alert users when they enter a country where same-sex relationships are prohibited by law, for example—but said that, whenever possible, most companies avoid involving themselves in geopolitical affairs.
And yet it’s no secret that tech hasn’t managed to avoid political entanglement. Tools and platforms tend to receive the most scrutiny when it’s discovered that they have been exploited for explicitly political purposes, whether with the company’s overt or tacit cooperation. But other times, the functionality of the tech itself becomes political, though the ethos of neutrality remains.
Services like Tinder, for example, rely on geolocation data that is contextualized by maps, which are themselves geopolitical interpretations that are often hotly contested. This is especially true in regions like Israel and Palestine, where territories are disputed. For instance, a 2018 report by the Palestinian digital rights organization 7amleh (pronounced “hamleh”) outlined a number of ways that Google Maps, one of the largest digital mapping services in the world, imposes what it calls “the Israeli government narrative” on the landscape of the West Bank. The report notes that Israeli settlements in the territory, which exist in violation of the Geneva convention, are shown as part of Israel, though the term “West Bank” appears on the map as well. It also points out that the app doesn’t mark military checkpoints—army roadblocks that restrict movement within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel—and that its navigation defaults to routes that only Israelis are allowed to access, decisions by Google that the reports’ writers argued prioritize Israelis, endanger Palestinian users, and remove evidence of the occupation from the map. In an emailed response to WIRED, a Google spokesperson wrote that the company is committed to displaying disputed territories objectively.
In 2017, Amitay Dan, a cybersecurity researcher in Israel, discovered that Google’s mapping of contested areas also impacts the functionality of Tinder Passport. The premium feature allows users to choose their location and match with people in other parts of the world. While experimenting with the feature, Dan noticed that the app returned a “No location found” notification when he tried to change his location to anywhere within the Palestinian territories. To this day, searching for cities and towns within a disputed territory will return this error message. Users can swipe from their selected destination, but the location name will still appear as a blank space within the app. Dan brought his discovery to journalist Oded Yaron, who observed the same was true within other disputed regions, like Northern Cyprus. Yaron’s story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes that, when approached for comment on the issue, Tinder referred the author to Google, which did not respond. “The topic is like fire,” Dan tells me. “They don’t want to touch it.” Tinder did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.