On Monday, March 22, Google stopped censoring its search services on Google China. Users heading to Google China are now being redirected to Google Hong Kong, uncensored due to Hong Kong’s much higher freedom of information.
According to Google, this move was “entirely legal” and stayed within the bounds of Google’s 2006 agreement with China, while fulfilling Google’s January promise to stop censoring results in China. However, the Chinese authorities contend that “Google has violated the written promise it made when entering the Chinese market”.
During the last half of 2009, a sophisticated cyber attack originating from China targeted Google and more than thirty other major companies in the Internet, finance, technology, media, and chemical businesses. Some of the companies targeted were Yahoo, Adobe Systems, Symantec, Northrop Grumman, and Dow Chemicals. The attackers accessed the source code repositories — the basic, readable electronic makeup of software — of these companies. They also attacked the Gmail accounts of several Chinese political dissidents with limited success. The attack was traced back to two schools, both with ties to Google China’s search engine rival, Baidu.
On January 12, Google announced on its official blog that it had been a victim of this attack, and revealed information about the attack to the general public. Also, in reaction to the cyber attack, Google declared its intentions to stop censoring its results in China. To show their support for this decision, some Beijingers placed flowers and candles at Google China’s headquarters, only to have them removed by authorities, who deemed it an “illegal flower tribute”. On the other hand, the government-backed media outlets slammed Google. The People’s Daily Online called Google’s announcement a bluff: “If Google left, they will lose China. Are they really willing to do that? I don’t believe an international company would give up market of such vast potential. I don’t believe it.”
But Google did come through on its promise to provide Chinese users with uncensored search results, and sooner than most thought. After two months of strained talks between Google and China, Google has set up Google China to redirect to the uncensored Google Hong Kong. However, China did not agree to this decision.
There is a catch. Although Google itself does not censor the results returned from Google Hong Kong, any Chinese Internet user connecting from within mainland China will still receive censored results. Sites and images deemed too politically sensitive are blocked by the state-run censorship project, which has picked up the nickname “The Great Firewall of China”. However, China might fear losing face in having its mainland citizens redirected to the Hong Kong version of Google, and seeming to lose its struggle against Google. For this reason, Google predicts that China will take control of the Google China address and also block Google Hong Kong entirely. Anticipating such an access block, Google has set up a website on which one can monitor mainland China’s accessibility to eleven Google services, including web search, image search, YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, and Picasa, allowing the world to keep a close watch on China’s Internet censorship.
At the end of the blog post, Google stated its intentions to continue doing research and development in China. It also plans to keep Chinese sales and service staff working on Android, its operating system for mobile devices. However, the future of many Google employees in China is far from certain. To protect them from any attacks or legal charges, it was noted at the end of the blog post that the ending of Google’s self-censorship in China was entirely planned and carried out by American executives.
As of now, the long-term repercussions of the largest Internet-based company pulling its main services out of the country with the largest population of Internet users remain unknown for both sides.