Sub Photo Could Help Sink Google in China

A photo that purports to confirm the existence of a new class of Chinese ballistic missile submarine could torpedo Google Inc.'s aspirations in the world's second-largest Internet market.

Users of Google Earth in China should enjoy it while they can.

On July 5, researcher Hans Kristensen posted what he believes is the first photo of the Jin-class submarine to the Strategic Security blog on the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists, a nuclear weapons research and opposition group. The photo, taken from Google Earth, is accompanied by coordinates for six other Chinese submarine bases on the same page.

Although it was the People's Liberation Army Navy that docked the alleged new sub outdoors, in full view not only of the commercial satellites that Google uses but also those employed by the U.S. and other militaries, that doesn't mean that China's growing blue-water force will take kindly to being put on display.

The sub photo made headlines, with a story appearing on the front page of a newspaper called "Global Military Affairs Weekend," accompanied not by the Google Earth image, but a picture of a sub so old it looks like it fought in World War II. The article stated that the submarine captured by satellite was "China's newest submarine, the Yuan class."

Google hasn't fared well in China, even before the sub photo surfaced. It trails rival Baidu Inc. in the local search market, and earlier this year admitted that it had "inadvertently" used part of a database from Chinese portal Sohu.com Inc. to create a Chinese-language search tool. The company has come under fire for knuckling under to Chinese Internet censorship policies, such as excluding politically sensitive results from the Chinese version of its search engine.

None of this includes the other difficulties Google has encountered in China, including occasional blocking of its main search engine, the blocking of its Blogspot blogging site, the inaccessibility of cached pages from its main site, and limited access to Google News.

In fairness, China isn't the only country that has had weaponry and military sites laid bare by Google Earth. The North Koreans must be thrilled that most of their naval bases can be viewed by anybody with a PC and a broadband connection. That's not to mention the new security risks presented to military installations in the U.S. and elsewhere, now that hostile forces, be they terrorists or regulars, have an easily accessible aerial view of each site.

For situations like this in China, rarely is the reaction immediate. With Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games just over a year from now, China isn't eager to court negative press as it seeks to present itself as more open and tolerant. Its response may also not be so public. Despite being outed by a piece of software, Google's troubles will more likely occur if it attempts to expand in China via investment or acquisition, or if it attempts to move into other business areas, especially anything involving online video.

A Google spokeswoman in Beijing did not respond to a request for comment on how the submarine photo may affect the company's fortunes in China.

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