Friday, April 08, 2011

China may shut down Google Maps

Google, as well as a number of other Internet companies (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare etc), have had a fraught time promoting their services in China, but it looks as though the situation may become far worse. New regulations issued by the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping require all companies providing online mapping in China to submit for a licence to operate. Those that fail to do so or do not adhere to the stipulations set out in the licence would be forced to shut down.

Many of Google's services are already blocked or severely restricted in China. YouTube, Picasa Web and Blogger have been inaccessible for some time while Google Sites and Google Docs were blocked last year. After a dispute with Chinese authorities last year over alleged hacking attempts on its GMail servers, Google decided to relocate its Chinese oriented search engine to Hong Kong after it said it was unwilling to self-censor Internet searches. While this freed Google from being forced to self censor search results it has made the site less accessible for many people in mainland China. More recently Google accused China of interfering with its GMail service making it exceeding slow or entirely inaccessible, something which the Chinese authorities denied. The blocks on GMail came shortly after calls for a Jasmine Revolution in China and also after Google was accused by the People's Daily of being like an American version of the British East India Company, which during the Opium Wars, "forced open the doors of China with its own gunships, sending China into a century of chaos and leaving Chinese with a bitter history of humiliation." This is something China will not allow to happen again, the paper says. "China will not stand by and let a new British East India Company repeat the events of history."

Threat to Google Maps

China's war against Google seems likely to spread to Google Maps. The People's Daily has reported that Google has failed to apply for the appropriate licence and may be shut down. The deadline for the licence application passed on 31st March and a shutdown could be seen as early as July.

An official from the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping no application had been received from Google and that administrative departments would adopt measures on 1st July "to firmly punish the serious delinquent behaviors of enterprises that do not submit the application".

After passing the regulations in 2010, the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping issued Internet mapping licenses to 105 websites, including China's domestic enterprises, such as Baidu, Sina and China Mobile, as well as the Nokia joint venture company in China in mid-February. Google suffered a further setback last month after Sina dropped its mapping service.

Should China block Google Maps it will be a blow not only to the Internet giant but to millions of users in China. The site is widely used on mobile devices and computers by expats and visitors. Its built in travel directions and GPS integration has made it an indispensable tool for travellers trying to find their way around.

Many websites inside China still use Google Maps, especially entertainment websites such as City Weekend which targets tourists and expats.

No real alternative

While there are Chinese based alternatives, they do not offer the same functionality as Google Maps. Baidu's map service does not offer an English version and only provides mapping for China. The detail offered is not as comprehensive as that provided by Google Maps and the facility to obtain directions from one location to another is more tricky given the interface is entirely based in Chinese.

Analysts speculate that Google might not pass the next Internet Content Provider annual inspection, a necessary permit issued by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to permit China-based websites to operate in China.

Google has a meagre market share in China and although local Chinese Internet companies may benefit from Google's complete ousting in the short term, due to less competition, it may not be good for the healthy development of the nation's Internet industry in the long term.

Servers outside China

For Google providing a separate mapping service for China may prove tricky. Just as with its GMail service, the data for its Maps service is hosted outside of China. Making a China specific product, satisfying the requirements of Chinese authorities, might prove logistically impossible, or at the very least extremely costly.

As the Chinese Internet closes in on itself and further tightens regulations, it may soon become the Intranet that it is often jokingly referred to by some.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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