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7/12/2010
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Google Confronts Map Censorship

Having moved its search service from mainland China to Hong Kong, Google may soon have to do the same with Google Maps.

When China's State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping last month published a preliminary list of 23 companies that have been approved to provide mapping services in China, no foreign companies were included.

Google would like to be on the final list so it can continue offering online maps to its users in China, alongside competitors like Baidu. But to do so, Google will have to comply with Chinese mapping regulations. And that, blogger Stefan Geens observes, would violate Google's pledge not to censor search results in China.

Geens, who publishes the Ogle Earth blog, notes that Google users from mainland China who click through to Google's uncensored Hong Kong site (google.com.hk) nonetheless still get the censored version of Google Maps (ditu.google.cn) rather than the uncensored Hong Kong version (maps.google.com.hk).

In his blog, he explains the difference between the mainland China and Hong Kong versions of Google Maps: "The HK version lets you overlay user-generated content from Panoramio, YouTube, Wikipedia and Web cams. The CN version does not, as required by Chinese law. The HK version shows the disputed border areas between China and India inside dotted lines; on the CN map it all belongs to China, as required by Chinese law."

Geens argues that by censoring Google Maps, Google is failing to live up to its pledge to cease censoring search results in China, given that many searches involve maps.

It's a situation that Google is aware of.

Google in March said it has been reviewing its products to decide which can remain in China and which must be moved to Hong Kong, where the censorship laws of mainland China don't apply.

"Google Maps is one of the products still under review--in particular since the government recently announced new mapping regulations that we also need to take into account," a Google spokesperson said in an e-mail. "We hope to reach a conclusion on this soon; until then, we will continue to operate ditu.google.cn in accordance with local Chinese law. As we've said, we are committed to ensuring that our products in China are not censored."

Continuing to provide censored map results is harmful, Geens contends. "The problems with such maps is that they are not as useful: You might conceivably use Chinese Google Maps to plan a trip into Arunachal Pradesh, only to be surprised by the actual border," he explained in an e-mail.

India, which has territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh that conflict with China's claims, shows different borders on its maps.

A more subtle harm, he says, has to do with Google's inability to provide user-generated mapping content. To do so, Google would have to police mapping content related to politically sensitive topics that users uploaded or created. This would be economically burdensome and would generate negative publicity among supporters of democracy and free speech.

Google's solution to ending search censorship began as a redirect command that took users in mainland China to Google's uncensored search site in Hong Kong. But Chinese authorities made it clear that wasn't acceptable and Google now simply has a link on google.cn that will take users to google.com.hk if they choose to go there.

Geens argues that Google should kill ditu.google.cn -- an outcome that may be mandated if Google can't find a way to comply with Chinese mapping regulations while simultaneously keeping its commitment to avoid censorship -- and provide a link to the uncensored map of China on its Hong Kong servers.

"[Google's] decision to stop censoring inside China is a good and brave one, but it should be implemented fully before Google really deserves full praise for its principled stance," said Geens.

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