Google Earth Builder: A potential solution to the map censorship conundrum in China, India

Google Earth Builder, announced and previewed at this year’s Where 2.0, will — among other things — let government agencies publish their own maps and satellite imagery to the public, scalably, using the same cloud-y infrastructure that underpins Google Earth and Maps. That’s different from the existing Google Earth Enterprise product, where Google provides the software but not the servers.

What interests me most about Google Earth Builder is that it has the potential to release Google from a conundrum it currently faces when delivering maps internationally: Some of the world’s more overbearing governments impose onerous constraints on locally served maps — such as in China and India, both of which demand the drawing of incompatible borders and the removal of sensitive sites from maps. (This is why Google maintains separate sets of data for these locally-served maps.) China also insists that Google take responsibility for censoring any user-generated content it might want to publish. (As a result, Google’s local Chinese maps don’t publish user-generated content.)

With Google Earth Builder, Google can now play host to virtual globes without also being the publisher, thus relinquishing responsibility for the content. This allows for some interesting new arrangements.

While some governments have been happy to give Google their mapping and imagery data for use in Google Maps and Earth, viewing it as a free distribution model for a public good, other governments have chosen to view Google’s free maps as a threat: perhaps they balk at the free, advertising-driven nature of Google Maps, or the fact that Google’s maps are a for-profit pursuit by a private corporation. A more creative argument put forward in 2006 by France’s then-president Jacques Chirac states that the ability to serve online maps is a strategic technology for a state to have:

[...] Chirac stressed the need for France to have such a site [...] saying the state had to be at the cutting edge of modern technology.

And indeed, France was the first of several countries to build a “Google Earth killer”. Géoportail, released in 2006, was followed in 2008 by India’s Bhuvan and in 2010 by China’s TianDitu. TianDitu’s virtual globe is homegrown, but with satellite imagery purchased from Digital Globe. Géoportail and Bhuvan, however, are both implementations of a mapping platform produced by Skyline, an American company. (So much for French strategic thinking.)

What all three geoportals have in common is that they are hardly best of breed, and certainly no “killers” of anything: Their 3D visualizations require Windows-only browser plugins, navigation is often unwieldy, and as launch difficulties betrayed for all these sites, scaling up is a big problem.

Google Earth Builder solves all these problems. Now a government can publish their own branded geoportal via Google’s infrastructure, using as much (or as little) of Google’s content it approves of and adding the rest. Google makes its money as a contracted service provider instead of through advertising, while the end user of the resulting product gets free maps that are inoffensive to the country footing the bill. (It’s not clear to me whether Google’s terms would allow somebody to sell their own ads against the maps to defray costs, or whether competitors like China’s Baidu could use Google Earth Builder.)

Once Google Earth Builder is available, Google has a new chip to bring to the bargaining table when dealing with regulatory issues surrounding maps in India and China (and potentially elsewhere). One thing that the chapter on China in Steven Levy’s recent book In the Plex confirms is the extent to which Google’s entry into and subsequent exit from the Chinese search market was fraught with a moral ambivalence that eventually outargued any profit motive. This ambivalence has not yet been resolved in Google’s China-facing mapping product, ditu.google.cn, which continues to toe the (border)line as China sees it. An ethical solution to the Google Maps conundrum in China, then, might involve shutting down ditu.google.com, but inviting the government or any number of private Chinese internet startups to adopt Google Earth Builder as their mapping platform, letting them instead engage in the arduous vetting process that precedes the granting of a web mapping license in China (which, by the way, Google is still without (via). It’s not even clear that Google has applied, which could mean that this scenario is very much in the process of unfolding.) Surely, some Chinese ex-Googlers will be interested in providing a technically superior albeit politically censored mapping service to the Chinese intranet…

The upshot: Google finds a way to get paid in an enormous and growing market, and at the same time is making sure that censorship invokes a cost. There’s a certain genius in that arrangement.

(A technical note: Google Earth Builder only seems to work with the Google Earth standalone client when accounts are used to regulate access (hence it would need Google Earth Pro or Enterprise). It therefore seems likely that any public-facing 3D maps made with Google Earth Builder will be a delivered via the browser and the Google Earth plugin.)

3 thoughts on “Google Earth Builder: A potential solution to the map censorship conundrum in China, India”

  1. Observations and thoughts very intelligent. Great article about Google Earth Builder.

  2. Love the article, smart and a great synopsis.

    I would appreciate a clarification. It reads: “Google Earth Builder only seems to work with the Google Earth standalone client when accounts are used to regulate access (hence it would need Google Earth Pro or Enterprise). ”

    Does this mean that a given user would need Pro (or Enterprise) in order to access Earth Builder content, or as Google calls it, individual “globes”? I thought that it worked on the free version of Google Earth too…

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