On the virtues of keeping OpenStreetMap uncensored

Mikel Maron reports on an interesting development in the OpenStreetMap community of volunteer mappers — the Russian OSM community is debating whether Russian military installations should be removed from the OSM dataset, on security grounds.

It is illegal to do mapping without a permit while in Russia, so it is understandable if Russian OSM contributors refrain from mapping sensitive sites, such as military bases. But the current debate goes further — should the local OSM mapping community in Russia have the final say on what is and isn’t included on the OSM map of Russia? Should it be able to remove content contributed by others to the Russian map in the global OSM dataset if such content is deemed a threat to Russia’s national security?

More broadly, does the OSM’s operational principle of subsidiarity — where decisions are made at the most local level possible — trump the right of anyone to contribute information to the map?

There should be no surprise as to which side of the debate I find myself on. But the arguments are not as clear-cut as they might appear at first glance. Mikel posits an interesting edge case for censorship:

Legitimate cases to me is only information that puts dis-empowered people at risk, such as refugee routes along the Burmese-Indian border. But does this mean I would remove those tracks if someone added to OpenStreetMap? This and other questions remain to be answered.

Here are some arguments against the idea of letting local communities “own” their maps, and against the notion of any censorship in OSM. In no particular order:

Maps of bases are not the vulnerable points in the defense of the motherland:

Russia has indeed seen attacks by militants from the Caucasus region, but on civilian targets, such as the Moscow subway. Yet nobody argues that the proper response is to remove Moscow’s subway stations from the map. Meanwhile, all of the world’s militaries with an interest in Russia know exactly where Russia’s bases are.

OSM’s competitiveness depends on its completeness:

Censorship would make OSM’s dataset less competitive. Google Earth Community contains a exhaustive dataset of military bases, including Russian ones, and these are in no danger of ever being deleted at the behest of local opposition. The only recourse for those favoring censorship would be to try to introduce false information into the GEC dataset, but since such military data is curated by dedicated enthusiasts, this would be hard to pull off.

OSM’s local communities are small, and hence vulnerable to infiltration:

In China, an army of paid astroturfers ensures that the government’s position gets prime place in any online debate it designates as important. This is a effective strategy in small communities, which can be infiltrated by nationalist-sympathizers whose main priority is getting outcomes amenable to the government.

Maps are not owned by the regions they depict:

I mention this at the risk of stating the obvious. Russia may have sovereignty over its territory, but does not have sovereignty over maps of its territory, if these maps are made and kept outside Russia. If this were not the case, via the principle of reciprocity other countries would be free to claim jurisdiction over maps of their territories kept in Russia, and I am sure this is not something Russia would be willing to accede to. It is strange, therefore, that a disparate band of local Russian mappers would try to posit jurisdictional powers that not even the Russian government would pursue.

As for Mikel’s edge case: I see where he is coming from, but would argue that if somebody does want to publish such information online, then OSM is but one of many possible channels. In this case, it is better to know that the information is public and what it contains, so that it can be acted upon defensively (for example by changing the actual Burmese refugee routes). My own response would be to contact the people at risk (if I sympathize with their movement) to alert them that this information is in the public domain.

A course of action I would not condone is the adding of false routes, to make the data less reliable. Injecting false information into a dataset pollutes all the information, and undercuts the reputation of the dataset as a whole.

One edge case that I think is even more difficult than Burmese refugee routes is the mapping of vulnerable historical landmarks, prone to looting. Unlike a route, such historical landmarks cannot easily be moved, so once the information is out in the open, it will long remain relevant.

This debate has been held before, notably by Sweden’s Office of Antiquities (RAA), which four years ago decided that the benefits of a comprehensive public geodatabase of all historical monuments in Sweden outweighed the risks of looting at unprotected sites, above all because crowdsourced labeling of these sites will occur anyway — so you might as well make the best possible geodatabase available.

In sum: if an archaeologist is in possession of the only geodatabase for a certain excavation site prone to looting, then perhaps it is best to keep it secret, but if the information ever enters the public domain, then the right thing to do is to maximise the benefits of having this data be publicly available by making sure the dataset is as good as possible.

4 thoughts on “On the virtues of keeping OpenStreetMap uncensored”

  1. Great post, and so is Mikel’s.

    I think this is a matter of what we’re calling “symbol politics” in the Netherlands. It does nothing to increase the national security in Russia, but instead instills a fear in the Russians that their country is under threat continuously.

    So, it is understandable that the Russian OSM community is feeling uncomfortable, especially when they are subjected to a mapping permit. I feel sorry for them, but I agree with Mikel’s and your views.

    As to Mikel’s edge case: mapping refugee routes is actually putting refugees using them to risk. I think that any persons mapping them should really ask themselves what they are doing when making this information publicly available. The best option would be not to map any new routes.

    This choice can also be made by the Russian OSM community: don’t map any new military installations. This still leaves the question open who will be held responsible by the Russian government when they “discover” that there are still existing ones in the worldwide database. I have no doubt that they are very well aware of what is in OSM already. Probably they’ll look at the Russian OSM community in the first place.

    Although there are plenty of legitimate and reasonable arguments in favor of OSM (like pointed out by Mikel and you), it remains to be seen how the Russian government looks at them. One can only hope that Google will be willing to step up the plate, as they possess far more sensitive information.

    Maybe a technical solution would work (based on GeoIP), but things might get murky, and this would also be kowtowing before authoritarian regimes.

    Anyways, this is a tough issue, and we can only praise ourselves lucky that we’re living in more open societies.

  2. Frank, my assumption re the Burmese refugee routes would be that these would be mapped by opponents of those who use the routes. In this particular case, it is unlikely that supporters of the Junta would rely on neogeography to maps such routes, but in remains relevant in the hypothetical.

    a more pertinenet example might be supporters of the Sundanese regime mapping refugee routes and water wells, so that the Janjaweed can more easily attack. Here too, if this information were to enter the public domain, the refugees would gain knowledge of which routes are being monitored, and adjust their plans accordingly.

  3. Note from one of the persons who actively participated in the those events. Pro-remove-military crowd also have their point, when they said that ‘competitiveness’~>0 if those are left intact. Competition is country-dependent, I don’t think we should she try to mix it in the argument.

    Regarding ‘more open’ society by previous reviewer, it is an interesting question, if you’ve checked the discussion on osm-maillist you’d see a comment that for example German legislation on the topic is not that less strict.

Comments are closed.