Google Challenges South Korea Over Mapping Restrictions
Alphabet unit contends country’s national-security laws inhibit Google Map servicesBy JONATHAN CHENG
Google is taking on South Korea's government, arguing that national-security laws unfairly restrict its map service in the country. The WSJ's Jonathan Cheng explains why.
Updated May 17, 2016 10:50 p.m. ET
Google parent Alphabet Inc. is challenging the South Korean government over restrictions to its mapping services in the country, which renders some maps less informative than those for North Korea.
Google contends that South Korea’s national-security laws, which were designed to protect the country against infiltration from North Korea, are outdated and unfairly inhibit the company’s ability to offer the full range of its Google Map services in South Korea.
The unusual case represents a reversal of sorts: Elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe, governments are trying to curb Google’s influence.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House is shown clearly on Google Maps (Global), but appears to be blurred out on Google Maps (South Korea) and camouflaged on the domestic Naver Map service. ENLARGE
South Korea’s presidential Blue House is shown clearly on Google Maps (Global), but appears to be blurred out on Google Maps (South Korea) and camouflaged on the domestic Naver Map service. PHOTO: GOOGLE
The European Union last month charged Google with allegedly abusing the dominance of its Android mobile-operating system to push phone makers and telecommunications companies to favor Google apps on their devices.
In South Korea, though, Google is challenging the government. South Korea is among a handful of countries where Google isn’t the No. 1 search engine, alongside China and Russia.
In South Korea, Naver, owned by Naver Corp., is the leader in search and in mapping. “The main point is national security,” said Kim Tong-il, an official at South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, which oversees mapping policy.
Mr. Kim said Google’s domestic Korean rivals, Naver and Kakao Corp., only use government-supplied maps that already have had sensitive installations blurred or camouflaged. Google representatives contend that the national-security laws in South Korea unfairly benefit local competitors in the country of about 50 million people. The government maintains that national security is the laws’ sole purpose.
U.S.-based Google has been raising concerns with officials ahead of a closed-door meeting on Wednesday of top South Korean officials to discuss deregulation and innovation, chaired by President Park Geun-hye.
Google argues that South Korea’s laws hamper innovation in the country at the same time Ms. Park is touting startups to offset the decline of the country’s industrial giants in shipbuilding and petrochemicals. Ms. Park has made deregulation a centerpiece of her economic policy, comparing excessive rules to “a malignant tumor” that must face the “guillotine.”
At issue for Google is the South Korean law that blocks companies from exporting government-supplied map data, which the company says it must do to offer features such as driving directions, public transit information and satellite maps. Google says it has been requesting a license from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport since 2008, without success.
“We’ve had enough,” said Kwon Bom-jun, the Google software engineer who is leading the push.
Google says that it has had better luck in China, despite pulling the plug on its mainland Chinese search product in 2010 amid a tussle with Beijing about politically sensitive search items. The company says China hasn’t blocked features of Google Maps since 2008.
The company says it can offer a wider range of features regarding North Korea, including driving directions from the North’s capital in Pyongyang to the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center—which takes about one hour and eight minutes without traffic, according to Google Maps.
A Google Maps search for a driving route between the South’s capital in Seoul and its second-biggest city, Busan, turns up an error message: “No routes found.”
Google initially launched a bare-bones version of its Maps service in South Korea in 2008, with plans to roll out a wider array of services, including real-time traffic information, 3-D maps and driving directions. That never happened, as the Seoul government, citing national security, blocked Google’s efforts to export map data to data centers outside South Korea.
Government officials say that, by not bringing the company’s services into compliance with South Korea’s laws, Google would be leaving the country’s power plants, military installations and government facilities exposed to potential danger. Google would win an export license if it uses only the blurred-out version, even for overseas users, government officials say.
“Google already blurs out secure information for Google Korea,” said Mr. Kim, who is a deputy director at the South Korean ministry’s National Geographic Information Institute. “We are asking Google to do the same overseas.”
Google refuses, pointing to its policy on disputed territories in East Asia, where it labels the islands one way in one country, and another way in the other country.
“This is why we have separate domain services,” said Mr. Kwon, the Google software engineer, in an interview. “Once we start to unite the features, that will make chaos for other countries, too.”
For its bare-bones Google Maps service, the company uses third-party servers in South Korea, but says its other services are structured in a way that makes them reliant on Google data centers situated around the world.
“No matter how many servers we have in Korea, we can’t have all of our Google Maps services handled there,” Mr. Kwon said.
—Min Sun Lee in Seoul and Eva Dou in Beijing contributed to this article.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications:
Cycling directions aren’t available on Google Maps for China. An earlier version of the chart in the article incorrectly stated that they are.