An “article” from the state-owned China Daily newspaper republished on the website of China’s official news agency Xinhua News serves as our English-language notice: The crackdown on internet mapping services in China is real, and starts next month. The piece deserves a careful read:
China issues new rules on Internet map publishing
BEIJING, May 19 — An updated standard for Internet map servers will be implemented next month to avoid state secrets being disclosed and uncertified maps published online, authorities have said.
The new standard issued by the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, one year after the first standard was launched, requires all Internet map servers to keep servers storing map data inside the country and provide public Internet protocol addresses.
In other words, if you want to have your maps seen inside China’s great firewall, you will need to have them served from within China, where they must abide by Chinese law. The Google Maps version adapted for China, ditu.google.com, already abides by Chinese law — borders are shows as dictated by China, and there are no annotation layers visible —
but it is not now served from within China [They are now for Chinese users]. I think this spells the end of Google Maps in China, and of the API as well.
Another casualty of this decree will likely be Google Earth — it has no datasets adapted to suit the local laws of countries like China and India, and is served from outside China.
Under the latest standard, qualified online map servers must have no record of information leakage in any form in the past three years.
That’s another count against Google Earth, whose annotation layers are chockfull of information of the kind that the Chinese government probably considers leakage. It’s also a handy way to retroactively punish any Chinese map service that’s published geogaphic information not to the government’s liking before this regulation was announced.
The new regulation includes all maps downloaded or copied from the Internet onto cell phones and handheld computers.
Best to close that loophole before mobile maps take off.
By the end of December, the authorities will also crack down on unregistered or illegal Internet map servers and release the blacklist to the public.
Song Chaozhi, deputy director of the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, said in a conference on Internet map services in Beijing on May 14 that there are two main problems existing in the field: One is publishing maps with wrong locations or information, and the other is leaking sensitive information involving State secrets on maps.
All these will harm consumers’ rights or even endanger national security, he said.
Here we finally get an inkling of their motivation. “Maps with wrong locations or information” is newspeak for “maps with place names and borders with which we don’t agree”. As for “state secrets”, these are of course anything but secrets, because anything visible from space has now been in the public domain for years. The bit about consumer rights is just cynical posturing, but the party faithful eat that stuff up.
Cases of illegal mapping are not rare in the country.
The national surveying and mapping bureau reportedly punished three Germans who collected geographic information in Yichang, Hubei province and later mapped these in computers.
Similarly, the Longyan bureau of land and resources in Fujian province reportedly meted out administrative punishment to a Japanese who measured 195 locations inside Longyan and located 80 of them on his map.
Indeed, as long ago as 2006 scary foreigners were caught collecting geographical information from inside China! Unhelpfully, we’re not told if adding waymarks to a GPS device warrants the prescribed 7-10 years in jail. It might just be less of a hassle to get the coordinates from Google Earth.
The 2006 news item led to a speculative post on Ogle Earth about what might happen should Chinese officials catch on to these annotation layers, and four years on, it is proving remarkably salient.
In April 2010, the Shenzhen land planning and supervision team detected a website named Moon-bbs.com, where confidential geographic information including military airports and locations of nuclear test explosions were published.
That’s the BBS maintained by China’s William Long, who is also author of this English-language blog. It’s unlikely that this BBS and his Google Earth-centric blog Google Earth Watch took until 2010 to be “detected”. Even Ogle Earth managed to detect William Long’s work as long ago as 2008. More likely, the authorities decided that annotation layers would no longer be tolerated, and William Long was chosen to be made an example of so as to create a chilling effect.
The website was reportedly linked to the server of a foreign map website, where users can scan high-definition satellite pictures worldwide free of charge and mark the location or relevant information of a military site on it.
That would be Google Maps/Earth. Great investigative reporting, China Daily.
Satellite pictures cannot be called electronic maps because no coordinates are marked, but in this case, when users marked coordinates of military sites, it can reveal state secrets, experts said.
If your secret submarine cave base has been found — and let’s face it, it’s kind of a cool thing and something people will want to see and photograph if they can — the game is up for ever. You can’t put these photons back in the bottle. Ditto for new submarine classes that surface, or special training grounds.
Most of the world’s militaries and intelligence agencies know this. They also know that what’s visible to a satellite has long been accessible to everybody with sufficient resources, e.g. other governments, or conglomerates willing to spend cash on commissioning images and analysts.
Since Google Earth, this scrutiny has extended to crowds of interested individuals, collaborating to share their findings on the internet. And what do they annotate? Military sites are just a tiny portion; just check the list of topics in Google Earth Community: Huge and unique, sports and hobbies, transportation, people and cultures, nature and geography, history illustrated, travel information… and yes, military.
One way you certainly cannot solve the “problem” of having your sensitive sites scrutinized by the rest of the world is to legislate against it. The sustainable solution, as most modern militaries know, is to camouflage your installations, or hide them underground or in buildings, or otherwise frequently change the setup and configuration of those installations out in the open.
In another website called Godeyes, a well-known portal based on Google Earth with 440,000 registered users, people can pilot virtual planes from Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, to Beijing.
China has about 42,000 Internet map websites and as the number grows, more cases of information leakage reportedly occur.
Anyone who violates the State Secrets Law or reveals State secrets can be jailed up to seven years, or up to 10 years if the crime involves military secrets.
Many analysts said the new regulation will impact Internet map servers significantly.
Edward Yu, president of Analysys International, said the issue will involve balance or competition between the government and Internet map servers.
Workers from online search engine Google and communications giant Nokia said they have not heard of the regulation and have no comments on its impact.
“If it’s about natural fields rather than cities, satellite mapping information can be sensitive and State secrets such as military bases may be exposed,” said Chu Xiaowen, assistant professor of the department of computer science in Baptist University in Hong Kong.
“That’s quite normal for any country. No one would agree to put its own map information in other countries,” said Li Zhilin, professor of the department of land surveying and geo-informatics at Polytechnic University of Hong Kong.
Li Zhilin seems wasted on Hong Kong, where freedom of speech is still protected and none of these stringent new mapping restrictions will be in effect. He is of course also mistaken: These annotation layers are not owned by China, so they can be served from anywhere. And if by “own map information” he should in fact mean “maps of China” then he is especially wrong: Other countries don’t in fact have a problem with the Google Maps dataset of the world being served out of the US.
So what is the state of play currently? I’ve just checked:
- The Google Earth Community is still accessible from within China.
- The default version of Google Maps is still accessible.
- Google Earth is also still accessible from within China, as are all its annotation layers.
Let’s see what changes come June 1.
Just for the record, I think it is entirely a good thing that the average interested citizen can browse military installations and capacities both domestically and internationally. After all, we’re collectively paying for it, and if we are going to support this level of militarization globally, then we should know what it entails, and what we’re getting for our money. Accountability is a cornerstone of any open, democratic society, so it is fitting that in Europe and the US (and most elsewhere), pointing out military installations on a map is part of a healthy discourse on security and its costs. Criminalizing such activity is as stupid and reactionary as it is pointless.