Google charts a careful course through Asia's maps
March 23 (Reuters) - Google rushed out its panoramic Street View maps in Thailand on Friday as part of the country's efforts to show tourist hot spots have recovered from last year's floods.
But it also marked something of a change of fortunes for Google itself, which has weathered several storms in Asia over its mapping products.
Google rolled out 360-degree images of the streets of Bangkok, the resort island of Phuket and the northern city of Chiang Mai. Street View allows users to click through a seamless view of streets via the company's Google Maps website.
Google plans to use a tricycle-mounted camera to photograph places that can't be reached by car, such as parks and monuments. The Tourism Authority of Thailand will launch a poll to choose which sites to photograph first.
"We really want to show that Thailand isn't still underwater," said David Marx, Google's Tokyo-based communications manager. "People should see Thailand for what it is."
Pongrit Abhijatapong, marketing information technology officer at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said it was less about showing that Thailand was back to normal.
"Rather, we hope tourists can see with their own eyes what Thailand is like. Street View will help their decision-making process in a positive way in regards to visiting Thailand."
Google has not always been able to count on such enthusiasm elsewhere in Asia, illustrating the challenges the company has faced besides high-profile spats with China over privacy and India over removing offensive content.
In Japan, for example, Google was required to reshoot its street level photos in 12 cities in 2009 after complaints the 360-degree camera, set atop a vehicle plying Japan's narrow streets, was photographing the insides of people's homes.
And in South Korea its Seoul offices were raided in 2010 after police discovered that the Street View vehicle was not just taking photos but also capturing data over Wi-Fi networks.
In India, Google's plans to capture street-level images of Bangalore were blocked by Indian police in 2011. Google says it is in discussions with the Indian government "on ways to move forward."
Marx pointed out that Street View had been rolled out without problems elsewhere in Asia, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore, and is about to begin photographing Malaysia.
The cases in Japan and Korea have been resolved, Marx said, and Street View was now live and popular in both countries.
Indeed, Marx said Street View now covered much of Japan, including far-flung islands. In addition, Google captured street-level images of the area hit by the tsunami as part of an initiative to chronicle the devastation and reconstruction.
"Japan," he said, "has become one of the global highlights of Street View."
But issues remain in both countries. Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has since warned Google to comply with the country's privacy laws. That included a notice in November instructing Google to delete data collected from Wi-Fi networks.
In South Korea, prosecutors said their investigations were only temporarily suspended after failing to gain access to some Google staff involved in the matter.
To be sure, the issues Google faces are not exclusively Asia-related. But many of the problems over its mapping applications have been.
While it chose to risk China's ire by pulling its search operation out of China over a censorship dispute in 2010, in other cases in Asia it has danced carefully between local laws and sensibilities, and not compromising its own position.
Take Google Maps, for example, which is the mapping service that Google users access through a web browser or their phone.
To comply with laws in India and China, which require all published maps to hew to the host country's official borders, Google has created different versions - one for those accessing Google Maps inside India, one for those in China and another for the rest of the world.
Stefan Geens, a Belgian consultant who tracks the political dimensions of Google's mapping services at his blog ogleearth.com, says that given the size of both markets Google had little choice.
But Geens, the recipient of a Google grant to research international law and remote sensing technologies, said it also had to take into account the feelings of local staff in both countries.
"Google doesn't have to answer just to the Indian government, but also to its employees, when they do stuff which might offend Chinese or Indian sensibilities," he said.
Google's multiple version may have allowed Google Maps to be launched in those countries, but it has not quieted all criticism.
Cambodia has complained about the depiction of its disputed border with Thailand, while Vietnam has complained about depiction of its maritime claims in the South China Sea, which overlap with China and other countries. Google says the latter is down to Vietnamese Internet users viewing the Chinese version of Google Maps.
In India, protests have been more voluble and less easy to brush off. Over the past few years media and MPs have been outraged about the delineation of the China-India border on Google Earth and Google Maps, most recently earlier this month when a newspaper in northeast India ran a banner headline reporting that Google Earth was showing parts of the state of Assam as being part of China.
Most of these cases, Geens says, are either due to mistakes by Google or users looking at the wrong maps. Where locals are quick to see a conspiracy, he says, it's more often "an honest mistake on the part of Google."
Google has had more PR success with an offshoot of Google Maps dreamed up by two of its engineers in India. Frustrated that parts of the country were inadequately covered by the product, they developed a tool to allow users to fill in the holes.
Submissions are then reviewed before being added to Google Maps itself. Called Map Maker, fans include the Pakistan army, which used it to update their maps after floods swept away local infrastructure in 2010.
But Map Maker's appeal has been limited by criticism that any data contributed is proprietary, compared with open source projects such as OpenStreetMap.
On Monday, the World Bank, which announced in January that Google had allowed it privileged access to Map Maker for its disaster relief efforts, responded to criticism that it was using a closed system by stressing that it was not using Map Maker to create new data, but as another source of data.
Google's launch of Street View in Thailand, therefore, is a chance for Google to highlight a trouble-free partnership with a government in a country it views as a surprisingly strong market.
Google says that use has grown significantly there, and that it is now one of the biggest users in the world of the live traffic feature on Google Maps - unsurprising, perhaps, given the capital's traffic jams.
Thailand is not the first Asian country to embrace Street View but its request that the launch be brought forward was unusual, Google's Marx said. Although Google had already started photographing before the floods hit, they completed the project within six months after the government's request. Thailand, said Marx, "is an outlier in a good way." (Additional reporting by Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Kim Miyoung in SEOUL, Rebecca Conway in ISLAMABAD, Amy Lefevre in BANGKOK and Prak Chan Thul in PHNOM PENH)
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