Google says no to Chinese censorship

Censorship – the|G| via Creative Commons/Flickr.

Good news for human rights watchers on the Google front. The company announced today that they will no longer censor search results on their Chinese Language search engine, Google.cn.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all,” writes David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, on the company’s blog. “We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

Google, like other tech giants such as Microsoft and Yahoo!, has come under heavy criticism over the past few years for bending to Chinese demands to censor specific content (eg., anything to do with Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Falun Gong come to mind). For a company with a “Do no evil” motto, Google was particularly sensitive to the criticism.

Google.cn was launched four years ago and came under immediate attack by human rights activists for censoring results. Google, like others, had previously responded that it was trying to operate within Chinese law.

The company’s change of position stems from a sustained December cyber attack in which hackers attempted to glean information on Chinese dissidents and their US and European advocates.

“These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered, combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web,” writes Drummond, “have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.”

Around the Web

  • Google’s Statement
  • Global Voices translates Chinese netizen reaction:

    The sin of facebook is that it helps people know who they wanna know. The sin of Twitter is that it allows people to say what they wanna say. The sin of Google is that it lets people find what they wanna find, and Youtube let us see what we wanna see. So, they are all kicked away.

  • James Fallows, writing in the Atlantic:

    I have long argued that China’s relations with the U.S. are overall positive for both sides (here and here); that the Chinese government is doing more than outsiders think to deal with vexing problems like the environment (here); and more generally that China is a still-poor, highly-diverse and individualistic country whose development need not “threaten” anyone else and should be encouraged. I still believe all of that.

    But there are also reasons to think that a difficult and unpleasant stage of China-U.S. and China-world relations lies ahead… And if a major U.S. company — indeed, Google has been ranked the #1 brand in the world — has concluded that, in effect, it must break diplomatic relations with China because its policies are too repressive and intrusive to make peace with, that is a significant judgment.

  • Kim Mai-Cultler via Venture Beat, says Google’s self-censorship was never all that:

    The Open Net Initiative has a great tool for comparing Google China’s results with the main site. Or you can check http://www.google.cn and do an image search for ‘Tiananmen Square Protests‘ The results pull up pictures of people who were attacked and the famous ‘Tank Man.’ ‘Tiananmen’ alone brings up highly censored results. If your results are affected, this will show up at the bottom. It translates to “According to local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown.”

  • Wired (via Reuters) includes a timeline from 2000 to the present of key developments in Google’s bumpy foray into China.
  • Andrew Peaple, via the Wall Street Journal, writes that even though they’re number two in Chinese search, Google’s giving up an enviable stake and position:

    As its founders said when the company went public, “we may do things that we believe have a positive impact on the world, even if the near-term financial returns are not obvious.”

    But it makes sense to live up to at least some of its IPO promises—and not just from an ethical perspective. Google, which relies on consumer trust given the huge amount of personal information it stores, needs to show it guards the data jealously and uses it judiciously. Also, pushing for the free dissemination of information everywhere is hard to square with the prospects of ever greater curbs in China.

    Overall, the move is a depressing sign for foreign businesses in China.

  • China Digital Times translates Chinese language Twitter response to the news.
  • Kit Eaton, via Fast Company, wonders whether Google’s move worsened China’s Human Rights situation.

    [W]hether or not you approve of Google, while it was operating in China it was pushing for relaxations of censorship–using its size as a global giant to try to lever open some cracks in the censorship wall. And if it leaves the country, then what’s to stop the Chinese government running roughshod over any other players in the Internet tech game–likely far smaller ones than mighty Google–and forcing them to comply?

  • And now, of course, live reaction below via Twitter: