Just over four years ago, Google became complicit with the Chinese government’s censorship of the Internet. For the last 1,517 days, Google has been actively and purposefully restricting access to information from within mainland China, making a mockery of its core values to such an extent that even Sergey Brin recognized that his company’s principles had been compromised.
In January of this this year, Google was the victim of a cyber-attack that originated from China. In its description of the attacks, Google noted that the ultimate target of these attacks included human rights activists, with the apparent intent to surveill their communications on various Google platforms. This, along with what Google described as “attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web”, prompted Google to announce that it was “no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn”.
This appeared to a major breakthrough, as numerous attempts to get Google to end their censorship of the Web and to fully embrace a commitment to protecting human rights had all previously failed.
Over three months have passed since this announcement, and today we finally learned Google’s “new approach” to China: pack up and move to Hong Kong.
Starting today, users visiting Google.cn will be redirected to Google.com.hk, Google’s Hong Kong search portal, where search results will be provided free from the filtering Google had previously been performing on Google.cn. Google is touting this as ending censorship in China, but, as Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out, that really isn’t the case. It’s an end-around. A slight-of-hand.
Google is simply routing customers to the Hong Kong site, where it — presumably — doesn’t have to abide by China’s laws regarding censorship (to get a .cn domain, you have to agree to comply with all applicable laws, regulations and policies of the China’s governmental agencies and the China Internet Network Information Center). So, while Chinese users will now be able to access unfiltered results at Google.com.hk, they could always do that simply by going to Google.com. The Chinese government can now simply block access to individual websites through its firewall like before. We’re back to square one.
There have been suggestions that China must now decide whether to censor a Hong Kong-based service, something it has been hesitant to do. I don’t see it this way. China doesn’t need to touch the Google.com.hk site; all it needs to do is continue to block access to the sites it doesn’t want people from Chinese IP addresses to view. It matters little whether the link was clicked from a search results page on Google.com or Google.com.hk or even Baidu.com. China won’t need to tread onto Hong Kong’s quasi-independence to continue its censorship.
A final point targeted at Google’s apparent skirting of its ethical responsibility. By refusing to stay and fight Chinese censorship directly (such as how Wikipedia has tried to stand firm), Google is waking away from any influence it might have towards ending oppressive censorship in China. When it first announced its cooperation with Chinese censors, Google defended its actions at a hearing before the Committee on International Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives by saying this:
If Google were to stay out of China, it would remove powerful pressure on the local players in the search engine market to create ever-more-powerful tools for accessing and organizing information. Google’s withdrawal from China would cede the terrain to the local Internet portals that may not have the same commitment, or feel the competitive pressure, to innovate in the interests of their users.
Apparently Google is now content with ceding the terrain, and leaving Chinese Internet users at the mercy of “local Internet portals” like Baidu, who has been described as being “the most proactive and restrictive online censor in the search arena.”
I know Google is trying to do the right thing here, and it hopes it can deliver unfiltered results to China from Google.com.hk (or force China to take some kind of action against the Hong Kong site). But I fear this move will instead result in further failure to serve the interests of Chinese Internet users, and another lost opportunity to fight oppressive online censorship.
UPDATE: As predicted, China is now blocking some access to the redirected Google.com.hk site, as well as some of the linked sites.