You may call it fulfilling of an earlier promise or you may call it defiance over a bigger authority but Google has finally removed censored search results on its China search engine since early today. A blog posted by Google on its official blog indicated that everyone accessing its Google China site (google.cn) site will now be redirected to Google Hong Kong (google.com.hk) and will be able to access Web search, news search and image search with no restrictions applied.
Google stood by its promise even if the Chinese government repeatedly warned the search giant to abide by its laws and stop circulating subversive information through its search results. In its counter argument, Google only wishes the Chinese web visitors can also enjoy all its services as much as people from other regions do. Yet Google also acknowledges the Chinese government’s legal requirement of self-censorship. In its latest move, Google hopes the Chinese government respects its decision.
But that respect in my opinion is unlikely to happen. That’s because while China government appreciates Google’s contribution to the Chinese Internet users, Google’s recent decision to deliver uncensored search results or plans to pull out of its China operations was politically motivated. The government insists that Google should obey China’s laws and that laws were not meant to be bent over by large corporations looking for exemption.
State-run China Daily has published stories outlining netizen’s reactions towards Google’s plans and the search engine giant’s run-ins with various countries. Officials in Germany thinks Google Analytics is illegal and Google lost a privacy battle in France for digitizing books without permission. But there’s no denying the quality of Google’s services. Even China Daily embeds Google search engine on its website.
As for the argument on whether China will pull out of its China operations, David Drummond, Google’s Senior Vice President Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer hinted that Google will not pull out of China altogether. Google plans to continue its research and development work in the country and will deploy sales staff whose number is determined by the volume of users accessing the unrestricted google.com.hk. Mr Drummond also makes it clear that such decisions were made by Google folks in the United States and none of its China employees should be held responsible for those decisions.
Google provides a handy dashboard to monitor the activity of its services in China. As of last check, YouTube, Google Sites and Blogger remain blocked while Picasa, Docs and Groups are partially blocked.
Search engine users in China who wish to experience the same unimpeded listing when they search for obvious terms like 人权 (human rights) or 民主 (democracy) or even the cryptic 六四遊行(referring to June 4, anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre) will have to try it out soon. Reports reaching Google said there are already “Page Not Found” errors displayed on pages redirected to Google Hong Kong.
So what happens should Google search decide to pull out of China? Obviously Baidu is taking the lead with or without Google’s presence. But search engine share may not be Google’s first priority. The mere fact that China is home to 384 million Internet users – more than the entire United States population – provides a market big enough for Google to consider, even if its share is less than 20 per cent. Baidu stands to benefit if Google indeed would take down its search engine – or if the Chinese government forces it to do so.
But who will lose if Google leaves? For starters it’s the Internet users who use Google over other local search engines. These are users who are described as more educated and wealthier than their counterparts who use other search engines. They could include senior leaders who are technology savvy who get the credit for China’s move forward in technological front. A Google exit could disrupt this progress China has made over the years. And while Baidu’s preference for Baidu is nationalistic (apart from not having enough choices should Google go), China has made economic progress aided by competition among business operating in the country. And that includes competition among search engine providers.
The Chinese Communist Party recognizes that it is dangerous to allow rapid dissemination of information and organization of people – something that social networks are capable of doing more than Google does. No wonder Facebook and Twitter are nowhere to be found in China. But the power of social networking also brings benefits to China. In its hunt for corrupt officials, Chinese government has somehow benefited as bulletin board systems have spawned local revolts against incompetent officials and exposing bad government practices, sometimes leading to long jail terms and even death penalties. Google does not belong in this class of Web 2.0 web companies, but potent enough to deliver the same impact. Maybe a clearer set of guidelines on censorship as demanded by Chinese netizens would clear the air of misunderstanding. Or Google listening to what locals suggest as they know better?
Why did Google come up with such “all or nothing” decision? Kaiser Kuo, a former director of digital strategy for the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency in China, hinted that Google faces many legal scuffles with governments all over the world. He thinks that Google could not afford to fight a battle with the Chinese Communist Party all the time and this resulted in a consensus of either serving uncensored information or pack its bags and leave China.
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