Having spent some time in China, I have more than a passing interest in Google’s tussle with Chinese censorship, which culminated in Google shutting down their mainland search engine yesterday (Mon 22 Mar). The New York Times is reporting that Google’s Chinese domain, Google.cn, is currently redirecting to their Hong Kong site, which, like the rest of Hong Kong media, remains free from mainland censorship (for now). Google are planning on maintaining some of their background operations in China, but officially, Google.cn is no more.
I remember being in China when Google first took the decision to enter the Chinese market; the entry was a bumpy one and their stay on the mainland seems to have gotten no smoother over time. Not only did they find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having to compete for a share of the search engine market against competitors who could offer services Google couldn’t (Chinese search giant Baidu’s MP3 search, for example) but they took a lot of heat outside of China for their decision to censor their results, a decision that a Google legal officer describes in the NYT as a “non-negotiable legal requirement” of being allowed to do business in China.
Now, I doubt I’m the first to be making this point, but it is worth being made: Internet censorship in China is no joke. During my time there, entering a forbidden search term into Google, for example, could lose you access to the site for a good ten minutes, while sites such as Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are completely inaccessible from the mainland without the aid of services such as Tor. It was a huge source of frustration amongst the expat community and one that was not at all alleviated by Google’s entry into the market. So much, then, for the “some Google is better than no Google” argument, particularly since their market share remained tiny compared to censored search engines such as Baidu.
Ditto for the “Google as an instrument of change” argument. In fact, China has been more successful in exerting control over Internet access than anyone ever imagined was possible and Google, rather than catalyzing some sort of online reform, found themselves in the position of being forced to either play by the rules or get out of the game. The fact that they chose the latter may end up costing them in the long term, but it’s certainly made a point. Hacking attacks that may or may not have been orchestrated by the Chinese government were the final straw for Google, but most news reports about their decision to withdraw have focused on the argument over censorship. An argument about censorship is, on some level, an act of defiance against the very thing being discussed; hopefully it’s one that is taking place in mainland China as well.