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(News Focus) Controversy persists in S. Korea over restrictions on Google Maps

2016/08/10 15:21

By Kim Deok-hyun

SEOUL, Aug. 10 (Yonhap) -- A yearslong controversy over restrictions on Google Maps persists in South Korea, about two months after the world's biggest search engine again requested the Korean government to allow it to export government-supplied map data outside of the country.

Google had made the same request in 2010, but it was rejected because South Korea's National Security Law, drafted more than a half century ago to fight communism, banned the Korean government from sending such map data to other countries.

For Google, the government-supplied map data are essential to offer full-fledged mapping services, including vehicle navigation and driving directions, in South Korea, one of the world's most wired nations.

The Korean government has said it may allow Google to use the government-supplied maps if it deletes or blurs sensitive facilities on the maps, including the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae.

But Google has refused to do so, saying that there is no ground for the Korean government to censor Google's mapping service and locations of such sensitive facilities are widely available in other commercial satellite images.

Earlier this week, a public debate was held at the National Assembly to discuss whether South Korea would allow Google to export such map data.

Rep. Lee Woo-hyun of the ruling Saenuri Party who chaired the debate said, "We need to review what positive effects would be produced in terms of national interests and related industries if we offer our maps to a foreign company. Also we need to review how it would affect a divided nation's security."

   Kwon Bom-jun, a software engineer at Google, said in a statement that, "The restriction on exporting publicly available map data has limited the features and services that global companies can provide for Korea, and denied Korean consumers competitive mapping and navigation services."

   "The map data that Google has applied for approval to export does not contain any sensitive information," Kwon said.

Currently, the popular "Pokemon Go" augmented reality game is not available in most parts of South Korea because the game uses data from Google's mapping service.

But South Korean mapping and technology firms raised concerns that Google's influence in the Korean market would grow if the U.S.-based search giant were allowed to use the Korean maps.

In a survey of the South Korean firms, released during the debate, about 20 percent of them said exporting the map data may have a negative impact on revenues and profits of the relevant industry. Only 11.3 percent of them said exporting the map data may have a positive impact.

In a statement, the Green Consumer Network in Korea, a civic group, claimed that a full-fledged Google Map service may undermine fair competition with smaller Korean startups.

"There is a probability that a Korean-version Google Map could tear down the base of relevant small and medium-sized startups," it said.

Some critics urged Google to build a major data center in South Korea, which would eliminate the need for Google to export the Korean map data outside Korea.

Kwon, the Google engineer, said putting a data center in South Korea will not solve the problem.

"Google services, including Google Maps, are provided on a cloud platform basis, which means that the data Google uses have to be stored across multiple data centers around the globe," Kwon said.

"Even if Google were to build a data center in Korea, a map data export license would still be necessary to offer full Google Maps services in Korea for worldwide users," Kwon said.

On Tuesday, South Korea's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport had been scheduled to hold a second round of meetings to discuss Google's application for exporting the map data.

The second round was delayed, with no one saying when it would be held.

By law, the Korean government must make a decision by Aug. 25.