Why is Google Maps struggling in S. Korea?

May 18, 2016, 2:46 PM EDT
Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Sunset. (Source: Ian Muttoo/flickr)
Gangnam-gu, Seoul, Sunset. (Source: Ian Muttoo/flickr)

South Korea’s technology-based security measures designed to protect it from North Korea have been having somewhat of a negative impact on the country’s digital user base for years. Now they are in the spotlight more than ever because they affect one particular, widely-used app: Google Maps.

Local reports note that Google has been unable to implement a properly-functioning Google Maps service in South Korea for six years because of national security laws that prevent companies from exporting government-supplied map data. The Wall Street Journal notes that Google has asked for specific government permissions for data access to make its Maps service functional since 2008, and a closed-door meeting between the company and South Korean officials was held on Wednesday to try to rectify this issue.

South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world — making it all the more surprising that a service as widely used as Google Maps can’t function there. Given that it is home to Samsung, the fastest internet in the world, and an online gaming industry so intense people seek rehabilitation services for gaming habits, South Korea’s issue with Google Maps is particularly ironic. 

Here, Google is facing the opposite of the issue it has in, say, Europe where local governments are taking the web giant to task for anti-competitive business practices with services including Maps. Because Maps is so preferred, local navigation apps can’t compete.  

In South Korea, Google Maps can’t compete because it simply doesn’t work as well as local navigation apps. For now, South Koreans use local apps, but tourists who don’t read Korean are out of luck. 

Who knows what the closed-door meeting will produce; Seoul has been historically unwilling to alter its national security policies to accommodate web services, saying that security is paramount. But one would think that a country with such a technologically advanced culture and one of the world’s most famously innovative companies would be able to figure it out.