China cracks down on user-generated maps

Having lived in China for just over a year, I’ve seen the progressive blocking of Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, YouTube and now most recently DropBox, so today should not have come as a surprise: User-generated maps and annotations are up next.

There was some hope these past few years that Chinese authorities understood the collaborative nature of neogeography, and how ironic it would be to block it domestically or even criminalizing it for the sake of preserving state secrets that would then be available to everyone except the Chinese.

But considering the myriad of authorities with a finger in the national security pie, it was only a matter of time before the more paranoid among them were alerted to the existential threat posed by Google Earth, and the treacherous placemarks its users share with the world.

And thus we get this week’s crackdown, in the form of an “exposé” by the national propaganda television broadcaster, CCTV, and an article on the China Economy site entitled “Seven government departments rectify geographical information market: more than a thousand problem websites dealt with”. Danwei blog helpfully gives us the blow-by-blow account for non-Chinese speakers. An excerpt:

The CCTV program ‘Topics in Focus’ (焦点访谈), ever happy to attack Internet companies, especially Google, participated in the purge by airing a program last night showing how a Chinese blogger was “revealing state secrets” by writing annotations on Google Earth.

In the program segment titled ‘Beware of Internet maps revealing state secrets’ linked below, journalists appear to ask the blogger, identified as ‘Xiao Long’ about his online activities. Although they pixelize his face, they show his webpage, and it’s not hard to figure out that the blogger in question is none other than William Long of the Moon Blog, which Danwei has linked to many times in the past. His blog has a Google Earth section where he compiles and links to various interesting things on Google Earth.

The 11 minute segment from CCTV is especially worth watching. You don’t need to speak Chinese to understand the grave, serious tone of voice with which the presenter announces this newly discovered danger to the motherland. You also can’t miss the buckets of intimidation being heaped on the unsuspecting William Long as he is hauled in for a media ambush with the connivance of a local planning authority (at 2:43). All in all, an incredibly effective, and chilling, piece of propaganda for the 21st century, broadcast yesterday to hundreds of millions of homes across China. (And you were wondering why a large majority of Chinese citizens approve of their internet being censored?)

William Long’s Google-oriented blog is Google Earth Watch. (His default blog is Moonlight Blog.) Most of his posts are short texts on interesting sights, sometimes with a photo, and then a KML file pinpointing the location that can be opened in Google Earth. He’s been posting continuously up until 2 days ago, but not recently about China. The most recent post tagged with China is from October 2009, the oldest from way back in July 2006, about the then-upcoming Beijing Olympics. Here’s hoping William doesn’t succumb to a bout of self-censorship, and that this wonderful Chinese-language Google Earth resource site stays up.

[Update 17:28 UTC: Danwei is more sanguine about the possible motivations for this “purge”:

If there is a rational reason for this purge, it’s probably a way of making sure unauthorized vendors do not poach on the turf of government mandated providers of maps and GPS services. Giving CCTV another chance to give Google a little slap in the face is just an added bonus.]