Is the end nigh for Google Maps in China?

Google’s problems in mainland China appear to be coming to a head these past 48 hours, with both and the China-localized Google Maps in danger of being shut down soon.

Most discussed among the pundits has been Google’s application for the renewal of the Internet Content Provider (ICP) license for — read Google’s own announcement, and this take on the chances of it succeeding. The game may be up within hours.

Less publicized has been the uncertainty surrounding the fate of, The localized Google Maps implementation that abides by Chinese law when it comes to borders and names. For US users, the server is in Mountain View, but for Chinese users, the server is in China, as prescribed by Chinese law.

But Chinese law has more in store: Soon, only approved companies will be allowed to serve internet maps in China, and on June 28 a draft list of 23 companies up for approval was circulated (translated) — with Google missing from the list. 19 of the 23 are large state cartographic and geospatial institutions (“Land Surveying and Mapping Institute of Shandong”, “Yellow River Hydrological Bureau of Surveying and Mapping”), but four provide internet map services, of which one is Google competitor Baidu. All are Chinese.

A Reuters article quotes government sources saying that this list is not final, so Google may yet be added if it sufficiently toes some kind of line. The above list will be circulated for a week, so that interested parties can comment on it. It is not clear when these approvals will be meted out, but in the original explication of the law, December 2010 is mentioned as the date when unregistered maps will be cracked down upon and a blacklist circulated.

If in the next few days Google loses the license to operate inside China, all of this will be moot. In that case, an uncensored will still be available to mainland China users, and a Chinese-language uncensored version at Chinese authorities will then have to decide whether to start blocking access to Google Maps using their “great” firewall. If Google Maps goes, it is only reasonable to assume Google Earth will go too. The next few days will tell.