Whither Chinese Google Maps? Joint venture or bust, says China

Google’s mapping saga in China continues to twist and turn — this week, Chinese authorities announced they had again tightened regulations, now outright banning non-Chinese companies from offering online maps in China, unless they do so as a minority partner in a joint venture with a local company. China’s official press agency Xinhua News reported the news on June 8, although the new regulation has apparently been in effect since April 27.

Because these stories sometimes disappear from the internet, here it is in full, for future reference:

China bans foreign companies from offering online mapping, except joint ventures
English.news.cn — 2011-06-08 — 15:53:41

BEIJING, June 8 (Xinhua) — Foreign companies are effectively banned from providing Internet mapping services in China, however joint ventures are exempted, according to a notice issued by the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping on Wednesday. [Note: The hopelessly out-of-date website does not itself carry this notice]

The notice cited an amended regulation on overseas organizations and individuals that offer online mapping services. This amendment has been in effect since April 27, 2011.

The amendment also states that, for joint ventures with Internet mapping as their sole business, foreign investors cannot own more than 50 percent of the enterprise.

According to the notice, the amended regulation sets a stricter criteria for market entry which helps tighten up the rules governing the Internet mapping service market.

As the Internet mapping service market is developing rapidly, a lot of problems are surfacing, such as confidential geographic information being marked on maps, and maps showing no respect for China’s territorial integrity, reads the notice.

The amended regulation also clarifies requirements for overseas companies and individuals surveying China’s territory. They can either set up joint-ventures, contractual joint-ventures, or do one-off surveying with permission of relevant authorities.

In addition, the regulation bans foreign companies and individuals surveying and mapping of borders between administrative regions in China, as well as surveying and mapping of oceans.

As usual, the story serves little to clarify the situation, or the implications for ditu.google.cn, Google’s mapping service for the Chinese market. As of this writing, the website is still up (so is Microsoft’s Chinese map product) – so the amended regulation appears not yet to have been enforced. One possibility is that Google has agreed to enter into some kind of joint-venture arrangement with a Chinese company and given it operational control of ditu.google.cn — but there is no news of such a move, and the website continues to solely refer to Google as the provider.

Back in October 2010, an article on Sina.com.cn referred to the joint-venture requirement as a reason why ditu.google.cn would not get an internet mapping license, unless Google entered into a joint venture. That article, however, only referenced unnamed government sources and did not pinpoint to a published regulatory amendment. That amendment seems to have finally been announced in some official capacity.

For those new to this story, some context is in order. In May 2010, China announced internet mapping regulations that required licenses for online maps in China; companies were only eligible if they had not recently breached rules regarding sensitive information or shown borders that diverged from China’s own view. Arguably, Google’s ditu.google.cn product was in compliance with these conditions, as the dataset it uses obeys Chinese law and does not display user-generated content. A year-end deadline was set for a crackdown on “unregistered or illegal internet map servers”.

Google did not immediately make the cut, however — by the end of June, it was not on a draft list of companies up for approval, though it is also possible Google had not yet applied as it sought clarification through back channels. In July 2010, Google did manage to renew its license for its main google.cn property, though with search queries shunted to google.com.hk, hosted in the free-speech haven of Hong Kong. At this time, I argued that continuing to offer a censored mapping product in China was incompatible with Google’s stated position that it was no longer willing to censor its China-facing properties.

In October 2010, we had the story about the joint-venture requirement on Sina.com.cn. Then 2011 arrived and yet ditu.google.cn continued to operate. By March 30, 2011, Google had still not applied for a license, according to Chinese authorities. One possible clue as to Google’s plans came in April 2011, when it previewed Google Earth Builder, a mapping platform that lets anyone build and serve internet maps on top of Google Maps technology, but with complete control over the contents. Google Earth Builder could be a way for third parties to create mapping products palatable to Chinese authorities, based on Google Maps.

At this point, the main questions are: Is Google interested in entering into a joint venture to keep serving up ditu.google.cn in China? Or will it instead run out the clock and see if/when ditu.google.cn gets shuttered for being an unlicensed/illegal website? If so, will it then try to to market Google Earth Builder to third parties more willing to navigate the morally murky waters of Chinese mapping regulations? Might Google become a minority partner in a joint venture running Google Earth Builder, responsible just for the technical implementation of the platform? In that case, would Google’s distance from the grimy business of censorship be sufficient to placate anti-censorship advocates increasingly intent on keeping western companies from operating in ways that compromise human rights? Stay tuned.

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