Mapping China and the law

Interesting news out of China yesterday, picked up by Google Earth Blog, The Map Room, et. al.: China to tighten foreigners’ mapping activities. Reading the tea leaves of Chinese press releases is fun — in this case, though, I think the language is obviously aimed at data gathering within China proper. It would be ludicrous for China to propose its sovereignty suddenly extends into space — this would fly in the face of international treaty and customary law, to which China is bound.

Were in fact China to propose that DigitalGlobe and its competitors not be allowed to collect and/or sell and/or publish satellite images of China, and attempt to impose economic or legal hardships on companies that don’t abide by its bidding, I’m willing to bet China would suddenly find itself at the butt end of reciprocal sanctions from Washington. But since China’s leadership is smart, this scenario won’t happen.

There is another gray area, however, that has nothing to do with satellite imagery: The publishing of what China considers to be military secrets to public forums like Google Earth Community (GEC). I have no idea whether China is worried that publicly available “sensitive” information is made much more accessible via posts to GEC (e.g. the locations and overlays of subterranean submarine tunnels). This information is also available elsewhere on the internet, but those elsewheres aren’t owned by Google. I think this makes Google vulnerable to ploys by Google’s competitors in China. (It wouldn’t be the first time either, as this NYT article from a few months ago pointed out.) Consider this scenario: Citing this new law, and egged on by Baidu, Chinese officials demand of Google’s Chinese subsidiary that specific posts about sensitive Chinese locations be deleted, because it is obvious that the information they contain was gathered on location — and that Google make the identities of several of the posters available to Chinese officials, so that they can be prosecuted should they ever show up in China. Failure of Google to do so would presumably result in Google being blocked in China, fines, or worse.

Continuing steadily along this increasingly speculative path, I’m sure Google would balk at doing a Yahoo! and would instead opt to cease operating in China rather than face the PR fiasco that would accompany the divulging of names.