Wednesday, January 30, 2013

North Korea less opaque but China obscured by smog

A little under two weeks after Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea, the search giant has made the country less opaque by filling in the detail on Google Maps.

Filling space

Before this week there was only a blank space between China and South Korea with few if any details on Google Maps. While Google's Map Maker gave access to North Korea's road and rail network, most users would not have been familiar with this. Now the search giant has taken the data, provided by enthusiastic but often amateur cartographers, and placed it on the main application.

In a blog Google said the map was built with the help of "a community of citizen cartographers" though it concedes that the map "is not perfect".

"Since 2008, Google Map Maker has enabled anyone with an interest in cartography to update the maps of the areas they know, and improve their level of detail and accuracy," Google says, "And because no map is perfect and in some parts of the world, map data is very limited, Map Maker is an increasingly important part of how we will build the modern map."

Google gave no clear explanation why it has only recently decided to shift the Map Maker data to the main application though it acknowledged that "people around the globe are fascinated with North Korea" and added that the maps were "especially important for the citizens of South Korea who have ancestral connections or still have family living there." [BBC / BBC / Daily Mail / Telegraph / Washington Post / Washington Post blog / Time].


The timing of the map's release is particularly interesting given last week's news of the discovery of further prison camps aided by Google Earth satellite imagery. Pyongyang insists that the camps do not exist and are merely foreign propaganda, but the advent of free high-resolution images from outer space have disproved such claims [Guardian / Telegraph / Telegraph blog / NKeconwatch].

Of course North Korea remains a country which is strictly controlled. Few if any citizens will be able to access the newly updated Google Maps, nor other foreign websites outside the country's Intranet.

Shifting attitudes

But some are beginning to see a gradual shift in the way the regime sees the outside world. less than two weeks ago rules were relaxed concerning foreigners using mobile phones in the country [BBC] . As a highly secretive and, some might say, paranoid regime, many items were barred. Some items were understandable such as weapons or narcotics. However GPS devices, cell phones and "publishings of all kinds" are listed on the customs declaration form.

Previously, all foreigners had to leave their mobiles at the border and collect them when they left. Visitors can now buy a SIM card at the airport, which will let them make international calls. However users of the SIM card cannot make local calls or go online.

How far the country will go in relaxing rules and begin opening up remains to be seen. There is still a great deal of suspicion concerning North Korea, especially as regards its nuclear ambition and constant rhetoric directed to South Korea.

"Unhelpful" visit

Even Eric Schmidt's visit was greeted with some concern by Washington who saw it as "unhelpful". The US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We don't think the timing of this is particularly helpful."
The reason for the trip was not revealed, though some reports suggested it was part of a humanitarian mission led by US politician Bill Richardson [BBC]. Speaking in Beijing before flying to Pyongyang, Richardson said the visit was "a private humanitarian mission" and that he planned to raise the case of a US citizen detained in North Korea [BBC].

Nonetheless, it seemed clear, given the inclusion of Eric Schmidt in the party, that the visit was as much a fact finding mission and a way to engage with the North Koreans.

"This is not a Google trip, but I'm sure he's interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect. So this is why we are teamed up on this," Richardson said before the team departed.


The words became a little more political soon after the visit. Speaking after his visit to Pyongyang, Schmidt said North Korea would continue to lag economically unless it embraced Internet freedom.

Schmidt said he had been in Pyongyang to discuss a free and open Internet. "As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth and so forth, and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically," Schmidt said. "Once the Internet starts, citizens in a country can certainly build on top of it. The government has to do something. It has to make it possible for people to use the Internet which the government in North Korea has not yet done." [BBC / BBC / BBC]

"Very strange" journey

Other musings of the somewhat secretive visit came from Eric Schmidt's daughter Sophie who wrote about a "very, very strange" journey overseen by a pair of official minders, such that one could mind the other!

"It's impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like," she wrote in an article posted on Google Sites. "Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments," the younger Schmidt wrote, though she noted that they "had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans." [CNN / Telegraph]

In many ways her informal account was far more revealing, containing interesting anecdotes about their tour to the Grand People's Study House where they were taken through study rooms where people sat diligently at desks apparently oblivious of the contingent being shown around.

At the Kim Il Sung University e-Library no one appeared to be doing anything.  A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared at their computer screens. "More disturbing, when our group walked in, a noisy bunch, with media in tow, not one of them looked up from their desks," Schmidt observed.  "They might as well have been figurines."

Reflections of China

To the north of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as it is also referred to, is China. Despite having opened up to the West, China portrays some of the difficulties and challenges that Google and other Internet based services face with any new comer to the information superhighway.

While North Korea remains behind a virtual wall, and disconnected from the rest of the world, China too has yet to drop its tight grip on how the Internet is accessed. Many Internet users in China, sometimes referred to as Netizens, jokingly call China's Internet the largest LAN, Local Area Network, or Intranet.

China's Internet is not as restricted as North Korea, but there are a great many sites which are inaccessible unless a VPN or proxy network is used. Most western social networks are blocked by authorities including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Foursquare, Tumblr and Posterous. Cloud solutions including picture sharing sites fall foul of the censors with Dropbox, Google Drive, Evernote, YouSendit, Scribd and many others blocked. Even news and information websites are often hammered by the censors. Bloomberg and Businessweek remain inaccessible after publishing a story about the financial interests of Xi Jinping's family [BBC / Guardian]. The New York Times also remains blocked following a report delving into Wen Jiabao's finances, something which China labelled a "smear" [BBC / Guardian].

Access to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia  is often restricted, especially the Chinese language version. And even the IMDB, the Internet Movie Data Base, has seen repeated blocks [WhatBlocked].

Google targeted 

Google services have been continually singled out by Chinese censors [Guardian]. There is hardly a single service provided by the Internet giant that has not, at one time or another, been either blocked or restricted. Google search is currently available, though it can still throw up error messages. Meanwhile GMail, and especially Google Talk, are shaky at best for many users in China. Most other tools and services remain almost inaccessible.

One exception is Google Maps which, so far, has not been nobbled by the Great Firewall of China. However the mapping application does show a strange anomaly not seen anywhere else on the planet.

While the maps of China are extremely accurate, and a GPS signal shows in the correct location, there is an apparent discrepancy between the satellite imagery and the maps themselves, in that there is an offset between one image and the other of up to 600 metres. The issues have been seen and recorded by many individuals on blogs [Wangjianshuo / coljac] and forums some of which have poured scorn at Google's silence concerning the issue. Bizarrely the anomaly does not occur in the Chinese language version of the site.

Opaque air

Even with an accurate map, for residents of Beijing and other large cities in China, just finding their way across the street has been proving difficult due to the heavy smog that has descended once again.

China's media are now raising questions and some are calling for a clean air act [BBC / SohuSina / Xinhua]. Even Premier Wen Jiabao has called for action, though given he is likely to leave office in March any influence he might have had is debatable [WSJ].

Wen seemed concerned that the "Recent smoggy weather" was "affecting people's production and their health." However it is the effect on the economy that might kick-start any action. The acknowledgement of the problem has been half the battle. Even the official state news agency still refers to the thick haze of polluted air as 'fog' rather than 'smog' [Xinhua].

Black humour

The conditions have conjured up some gallows humour as Beijing citizens choke on the air, considered hazardous by UN standards. In at least one school playground there is a joke circulating among 10-year-olds; A Chinese man recently arrived in America visits the doctor. "Doctor, I feel unwell," the man says. "Where have you come from?" the doctor inquires. "Beijing," the man responds. "Breathe this," the doctor says, holding out a pipe attached to a car exhaust. "Thanks, I feel much better!" the man says [NYT blog].

The situation has become so serious that some workers are even wearing masks inside their offices. The smog was so thick on Tuesday that more than 50 flights were cancelled at Beijing Capital International Airport, causing chaos ahead of Chinese New Year. The pollution, and the widespread reporting is also likely to affect tourism.


China faces several challenges in this respect. In building its economy it has created the pollution, both through the wide use of coal-fired power stations and the increased number of cars. To make a transition to cleaner energy will take time, time that the country does not have.

By not acting health problems will increase, unrest could grow and the economy could be affected. But action could also slow the economy as any transition to other forms of energy would likely slow production [Sky News / Mirror / Guardian / Telegraph / Independent / NYT].

Curtailing unrest

For years, the Chinese government insisted on referring to the smog as 'fog' and released unrealistically low air-quality readings. Official data has become more reliable, though their hand was somewhat forced by the US Embassy @BeijingAir tweets which dish out hourly reports on the city's air quality.

The data, and more reliable information has of course increased the concern amongst Beijing's population, There is already a growing weariness amongst the general population, tired of being lied to and who are seeing one scandal after another. It is to stem this tide of unrest that Beijing is concerned about and why they see it as necessary to restrict the flow of information on the Internet.

For China the genie is almost out of the bottle. North Korea will face many of the same problems in the future if it too decides to open up. Should the walls and barriers do come down, and the doors to the so called Democratic Republic do open, the new Great Firewall will likely be built to control the flow of information to those allowed to take part in any technological future the country allows.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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