China Tightens Control of Online Maps

December 18, 2015, 8:36 PM UTC
Chinese map in the shape of china
Photograph by Getty Images/fStop

In rules released this week, China’s State Council announced that all digital maps provided in China be stored on servers within its borders. The rules, which also lay out certification standards for digital mapping providers, will go into effect Jan. 1.

According to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, the purpose of the new regulations is to “boost development of the geographic information industry” and safeguard “national sovereignty and geographic information security.”

The rules seem much heavier on tightening control than on boosting development. In addition to the server location requirements, map providers are prohibited both from displaying or even storing any data deemed to be prohibited by the government. Government officials will be able to regularly inspect data for “errors and leaks of information that threaten national sovereignty,” according to Xinhua.

Due to ongoing conflicts over the status of Taiwan, and over China’s borders with India, Japan, and the Philippines, map information has very high political significance in China. Keeping map servers within China would, in theory, give its government even more control over what its citizens see. But the move is arguably redundant—China has long held mapping services to strict content standards, and blocks those that don’t comply.

This includes Google Maps, which has been officially blocked for users in China since 2010, when Google refused to submit to Chinese government censorship. Google has since made moderate concessions in its representation of Chinese borders on maps accessed from outside of the country, changing the names of disputed regions and depiction of Chinese borders with India and the Philippines.

There has been frequent speculation about when (or if) Google Maps will return in China. The current rule change would seem to make that harder, particularly since it includes a system of fines and penalties—and even potential criminal prosecution—for violations.

In Google’s absence, digital mapping in China has been dominated by services from Alibaba-owned AutoNavi, Baidu, and Tencent. Apple also offers its Apple Maps service there, using AutoNavi’s data at launch.

Digital mapping has become a proxy battleground for many nations with conflicted borders. Google, in particular, has been targeted by partisans in everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to India’s fight with Pakistan over the Kashmir region. But within China, there doesn’t seem to be much of a fight, since the country is keeping dissenting services—and opinions—out.

For more on Chinese pressure on tech companies, watch this Fortune video:

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