Google stopped self-censoring its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, on Monday and redirected that site’s visitors to Google.com.hk, its site based in Hong Kong. As part of the move Google starting making search results on the Hong Kong site available in simplified Chinese characters, which are used in the People’s Republic of China.
Although part of China, Hong Kong, since being given up as a British Crown Colony in 1997, has been a special administrative district. It has operated under the "one country, two systems" principle that offers a guarantee of a free press including open Internet access in Hong Kong.
The Internet giant should be commended for ending its self-censoring. While Google should never have agreed in the first place to censor results as the price of doing business in China, today’s action is a strong move that supports freedom of expression on the Internet.
But it’s important to note that a commitment to democratic principles was likely not Google’s only motivation. There is a strong case to be made that Google originally announced its plans to end self-censorship in China, not only out of a commitment to free expression, but also as a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from its inability to provide adequate security for online data. Recall that a number of human rights activists learned that their Gmail accounts had been breached.
Some say that Co-Founder Sergey Brin, who was born in the Soviet Union, has been uncomfortable about self-censorship from the beginning. Maybe the massive Chinese hacking effort prompted Co-Founder Larry Page and CEO Eric Schmidt also to wake up one morning and remember their corporate mantra, "Don’t be evil."
Whatever the reason — even with mixed motives — Google has done the right thing and deserves credit. In a post on the company’s official blog announcing Google’s plans Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond wrote:
"We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we’ve faced—it’s entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services."
Google also said it would launch a site that would be updated daily showing which of its services are available in China.
The so-called "Great Firewall of China" blocks access to many sites outside China that the government finds objectionable. But as James Fallows noted in The Atlantic what sites are blocked and when is often unpredictable. Many analysts say that Chinese consumers who are are determined can circumvent the "Great Firewall" with proxy servers and other technologies. Some say this acts as a sort of safety valve for dissident opinion.
On Jan. 12 Google announced that it and the computer networks of more than 20 other U.S. companies and been been the target of cyber attacks from China. While Google never specifically accused the Chinese government of being behind the attacks, it said it would stop censoring the Google.cn site and leave the country completely if necessary. It said then it would begin discussions with China about what would be allowed.
China has remained steadfast in insisting that Google censor its Chinese site. With Monday’s announcement of its plans Google said it intended to maintain a sales force and research operation in China.
Not at all clear on Monday was how China would respond, but Google has finally done what’s right.