2011-06-16

Co.Exist

If Google Maps Explores China, Will It Mean More Freedom Or Less?

Launching a maps product in China requires jumping formidable bureaucratic hurdles and navigating thorny ethical issues. Google's still determined to make it work, but at what cost?

Yesterday, Dow Jones Newswires, citing an official at China's State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, reported that Google has applied for a regulatory license to operate a maps software service inside the country.

Since last year, all companies offering online maps and location-based services and search in China have needed both official approval and a local operating partner to do so. Now, Google isn't just chasing local market leader Baidu; it's trying to win approval from a government it's publicly accused of cyberattacks on Gmail. Whether Google Maps could bring extra freedom to China's locked-down Internet, or whether the Chinese government would co-opt Google for its own anti-democratic purposes, remains to be seen.

Government attacks and tough decisions

Less than 18 months ago, it looked like Google might quit China altogether after reports of hacking by China. Then in March, Google accused China of again interfering with its operations, disrupting Gmail, targeting political activists, and blocking a service Google had established to help users find friends and relatives after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. And just earlier this month, Google traced a series of coordinated phishing attacks against Gmail users to a Chinese province. That accusation led the People's Daily, the official organ of the Communist party, to chide Google for "playing the role of a tool for political contention... For when the international winds shift direction, it may become sacrificed to politics and will be spurned by the marketplace."

Within China, Google is already having a rough time in the marketplace. Its local rival Baidu is growing four times as fast as Google. Baidu is surging in both market share and revenue, recently announcing an 88.3% year-over-year increase in revenue and a 125.1% increase in profit. For the upcoming quarter, Baidu projects revenues of approximately $500 million. That's small compared to Google's recent $8.58 billion quarter, but shows the size and potential profitability of search in China. Google isn't even safe on its own software platform: Baidu's wireless business unit recently announced deals to make Baidu the default search engine on 80% of all Android phones sold in China.

Making local trouble

Both tactically and strategically, maps are the key for continued growth. Maps are both a portal and a feature for all location-based services, from search to advertising. Maps are also the killer application for mobile devices. But mapping and location services are also where the most frightening implications for privacy and government interference lie. Baidu, for instance, doesn't offer satellite views of the country, opting instead for rendered drawings of the cities (like above).

In March, privacy activists cried foul after China's government announced plans to track the real-time location of all mobile phones in Beijing. Purportedly the government wanted to use the data to ease traffic congestion, but Wang Songlian of the Chinese Human Rights Defenders network warned that "this is part of the escalation of the use of technologies to control social discontent":

For ordinary people, the government is worried about social unrest. Often there's a spark somewhere and everyone gathers and puts out information. By registering people and tracking them, it enables them to find out about particular protests and punish individuals.

The democratic possibilities of cheap mobile phones are both a blessing and a curse. As more users gain access to information technology everywhere, the more sophisticated and distributed activist networks can become and the harder it is to zero in on individual organizers. On the other hand, you've got a huge user base who are increasingly edged towards the default position of less and less locational privacy.

It's a classic example of the question Evgeny Morozov poses in his book The Net Delusion: "What if the liberating potential of the Internet also contains the seeds of depoliticization and thus dedemocratization?" The messy answer is that there's always a still-uncertain possibility for both freedom and unfreedom. The outcome is driven by exactly these overt and covert battles and alliances between states, companies, activists and activist organizations, and everyday users on the ground.

There is no inexorable march towards any end result. There is only a series of stalemates driven by how far each actor can push against resistance from the others without eventually toppling over.

Google's hope is that its reputation for openness and independence from the government will win over customers. Baidu, which was recently sued for censoring pro-democracy search results and acting as an "enforcer" for government information policies, can't make the same claims.

It's possible that China is as worried about Google's sway with consumers as Google is of the government's. Hence the multi-pronged attack. It's not enough to simply disrupt services and censor results. Google needs to be seen as foreign, an enemy. But such rhetorical attacks could backfire and simply bolster Google's independent reputation among users within China and in the rest of the world.

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