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China Launches Its Own Version Of Google Earth

China is expanding the country's "sovereign internet" with the launch of a rival to Google Earth.

Like Google Earth and Google Maps, the new service, Mapworld, offers both virtual and satellite maps. According to Reuters:

Map World only provides high-altitude images outside China, with the other side of the Chinese-North Korean border a stark white blank once a certain resolution is passed. Other countries also turn up a blank page at close resolution.

Taiwan, which China claims as a renegade province, cannot be viewed at the same resolution as the mainland.

In the last two years, China's State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping has introduced new legislation that requires mapping service providers to store all their information in servers based in China and apply for a license. (Google hasn't yet applied.)

China, of course, is concerned about sensitive information getting out. For instance in 2008, commercially available satellite photos revealed the existence of a new ballistic missile submarine.

So as the "Financial Times" reports:

Beijing’s mapped version of the world lacks key information available on Google Maps or Google Earth.

For example, while Google Maps allows users to zoom in on an air force base at Shahe just north of Beijing to the extent that individual aircraft are clearly distinguishable, Mapworld goes blank over Shahe at beyond 1:36,000. The same happens at Jiuquan, the location of China’s largest space vehicle launch facility.

That might bother you if you like spending your time looking for Chinese submarine bases on Google Earth, but for the vast majority of Chinese, Mapworld would probably do just fine.

As the Berkman Center pointed out this week in its report on circumvention tools, "users in many filtering countries may simply prefer to access local content, written in their own languages about topics of local interest, despite the fact that the local content is subject to traditional government regulation and therefore highly censored."

That partly explains the rapid rise of the Chinese video-sharing website YouKu, which is now No.1 in the country, although the fact that YouTube has been inaccessible in China since March 2009 helped that along. If Google Earth/Maps is blocked for not having a license, or some other infraction, then Mapworld could benefit in exactly the same way.