2010/12/05

If there was any doubt about the repressive chinese regime...Google Earth censored

Wikileaks and The New York Times today released a set of US foreign service cables that document the various ways in which the Chinese government has purportedly sought to influence, harass, infiltrate and outright block Google’s operations in China. The cables date from 2006 to early 2010, from the earliest days of Google’s entry into China’s censored search engine market to just around the time the company decided to pull the plug early this year.

The cable most relevant to this blog is the earliest one in the set, dated November 7, 2006, titled “PRC claims high resolution imagery on Google Earth could aid terrorist attacks on China“. It reports on a meeting between the US embassy in Beijing and an unnamed Chinese government representative, who wanted the US government to “take action to get Google to reduce the resolution of the Google Earth images of China’s military, nuclear, space, energy and other sensitive government agency installations in order to deprive terrorists of potentially dangerous information”.

The cable confirms several suspicions that various posts on Ogle Earth have speculated on these past 5 years. Namely:

1. China tried to pressure Google to censor not just content inside China, but for all users around the world. First, it wanted to “reduce the resolution of the images of China’s sensitive facilities” in Google Earth. Second, it was concerned about the ability of users to freely annotate Google Earth imagery, for example using Google Earth Community:

Moreover, Google Earth allows users to post information about specific locations, –––– –––– continued, which means information about important Chinese agencies and sensitive installations is effectively being published on the Internet.

To Google’s credit, there is no evidence that it subsequently caved in to these demands, and there have been no reports of Chinese territory losing imagery resolution or annotations in Google Earth. Even more surprising, to this day Google Earth is accessible inside China without needing recourse to a VPN.

However, the ultimate price Google paid is no longer being able to operate as a search engine player on the mainland; and this was always the fear — that once Google had sufficient resources invested in China, the Chinese government might hold these investments hostage when wanting specific concessions from Google. Several of the other cables released today specify precisely what kind of pressure Google weathered from the Chinese government and its proxies in business, media and even from among hackers.

Why did China think the US government might be able to influence Google? China’s argument:

While Google is a private company it operates in the United States “political and legal environment.”

In China, all major companies align themselves with the Communist Party when matters perceived to be of national interest are at stake. (Read The Party for some stunning insights into how Chinese corporations and the government are intertwined. I highly recommend the book.) The US embassy official points out that in the US, this is not how it works: Google is a private company, he argues; i.e., it can’t be compelled to do things by the government that it is not legally required to do.

Ironically, within two months that statement would be false. In January 2007, after pressure from the US and UK military, the most up-to-date Digital Globe imagery from Iraq was removed from Google Earth (and subsequently from the DigitalGlobe dataset), because of reports that insurgents were buying CDs of Google Earth imagery in the markets of Basra, so as to better target their RPGs inside UK bases. It was a clear case of Google aligning with the perceived interests of the allied forces in Iraq, rather than being a neutral documentarian. (Since 2007, there have been no new imagery updates for Iraq and Afghanistan in Google Earth — possibly because DigitalGlobe and other suppliers no longer offer it.)

Even if you think that in this case censorship was justified, there is no denying that it weakened the plausibility of the US government’s response to China. Of course the US can compel Google, a company that is part of the “US political and legal environment,” to censor if perceived US national interests are at stake. Perceived Chinese national interests just don’t make the cut, sorry. It is no wonder then that China soon tried to engage in its own acts of compulsion — which ended up making Google’s life in China so difficult it decided to quit the search business there.

2. The Chinese representative mentions that China is not the only country wanting its sensitive locations censored, but is unwilling to name other countries:

He offered that China had been in discussions with other countries with similar concerns about Google Earth. However, –––– –––– refused to provide the names of the other countries, noting he was unable to share the information due to prior agreements with those countries.

We can make some educated guesses, though: China was not the first country to complain about Google Earth. In March 2006, India had already made a push at the UN for new treaty law restricting the publication of satellite imagery, though without gaining traction. In late 2005 Thai generals, the Russian military and South Korea’s Ministry of Defense had all reacted with alarm to seeing their bases on Google Earth. Of these countries, India would prove the most resilient to Google’s argument that the imagery was already available to all comers via Digital Globe and other providers, so that censoring Google Earth would serve no purpose.

If I had to bet, then, I’d guess that China and India engaged in bilateral discussions during 2006 on ways to contain Google Earth.

Below is the cable in its entirety, for reference:

DATE 2006-11-07 06:48:00
SOURCE Embassy Beijing
CLASSIFICATION CONFIDENTIAL
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BEIJING 023571
SIPDIS
SIPDIS
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/07/2021
TAGS: PREL, PINR, TSPA, CH
SUBJECT: PRC CLAIMS HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGERY ON GOOGLE EARTH
COULD AID TERRORIST ATTACKS ON CHINA
Classified By: Classified by Deputy Chief of Mission David S. Sedney.
Reasons 1.4 (b/d).
SUMMARY
——-
1. (C) China wants the United States Government to take
action to get Google to reduce the resolution of the Google
Earth images of China’s military, nuclear, space, energy and
other sensitive government agency installations in order to
deprive terrorists of potentially dangerous information, ––––
–––– –––– –––– –––– –––– –––– –––– –––– told
the DCM on –––– ––––. –––– –––– said the Beijing request was
based on possible “grave consequences” if terrorists exploit
the information to harm China. Google Earth is a private
company, the DCM reminded –––– ––––. –––– –––– was noncommittal on
whether China would directly contact Google or the European
imagery providers and the other sources of high resolution
imagery on the Internet. Other countries have shared similar
concerns with China, –––– –––– said, but he refused to divulge
country names. End Summary.
Google Earth High Resolution Images a Threat to China
——————————————— ——–
2. (C) Google Earth is providing high resolution images of
sensitive Chinese facilities over the Internet, thereby
endangering PRC national security, –––– –––– –––– ––––
–––– –––– –––– –––– –––– –––– –––– told
the DCM during a –––– –––– meeting. These facilities
include military installations, nuclear test sites, satellite
launch sites, oil production facilities, power generating
plants and important government departments. The resolution
is one meter for most of China, and is as fine as 0.6 meters
in Beijing and Shanghai, allowing anyone with Internet access
to view these facilities in great detail. Moreover, Google
Earth allows users to post information about specific
locations, –––– –––– continued, which means information about
important Chinese agencies and sensitive installations is
effectively being published on the Internet.
“Grave Consequences” if Terrorists Use Imagery
———————————————
3. (C) –––– –––– said China is extremely concerned that
terrorist organizations could access the high resolution
imagery and posted information and present a grave threat to
PRC national security. If terrorists used the imagery from
Google Earth to cause damage to China, there would be “grave
consequences,” warned –––– ––––. In the spirit of our sound
bilateral cooperative relationship, particularly on
counterterrorism issues, –––– asked that the United States
place “great importance” on China’s concerns, understand the
sensitivity of the matter and take action so that Google will
reduce the resolution of the images of China’s sensitive
facilities.
DCM: Google a Private Company, and Not Imagery Source
——————————————— ——–
3. (C) The DCM told –––– –––– that he would report the request
to Washington, but noted that Google is a private company.
The DCM said he had no information to offer on what, if any,
role or response the United States Government might have to
the Chinese presentation. The DCM noted that the Chinese
points only asked for a reduction in the resolution and asked
if the Chinese sought any specific level. The DCM also asked
whether –––– –––– had contacted Google directly and, since
Google purchases the imagery as any individual or entity can,
whether China had contacted the satellite imagery providers.
–––– ––––: Other, Unspecified Countries Have Similar Concerns
——————————————— ————-
4. (C) –––– –––– responded that China is approaching the United
States Government because the issue is directly relevant to
counterterrorism and that while Google is a private company
it operates in the United States “political and legal
environment.” China is requesting the United States take
action to prevent the information from being misused to cause
damage to China, –––– –––– reiterated. He offered that China
had been in discussions with other countries with similar
concerns about Google Earth. However, –––– –––– refused to
provide the names of the other countries, noting he was
unable to share the information due to prior agreements with
BEIJING 00023571 002 OF 002
those countries.
Europe the Source of Imagery, But Google Earth is the Key
——————————————— ————
5. (C) China will talk to Google about the “technical
details,” –––– –––– continued, adding that it is not for the MFA
to determine the appropriate resolution level. China knows
the source data comes from European companies, satellite
operators and the European space agency but –––– –––– said China
sees Google as the problem because it makes the information
easily accessible. When pressed, –––– –––– admitted that
Beijing had not yet contacted the European providers or the
governments associated with the European space program. ––––
–––– said that while China will look at the other Internet
sources of the high resolution imagery, Google,s well known
imagery is of greatest concern.
Randt
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