The Internet search giant Google announced on March 22, 2010, that it would no longer comply with Chinese government censorship and was suspending its online operations in mainland China. Since the announcement, Google has redirected users attempting to access its mainland China site, Google.cn, to Google.com.hk, a search engine based in Hong Kong, where it offers uncensored Internet searching.
"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," Google's chief legal officer David Drummond wrote in a March 22, 2010 post on Google's official blog. "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 . . .. 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 first discussed the possibility of leaving China in January 2010 after the company investigated a series of cyber attacks originating from China against Google and more than 20 other U.S. companies in mid-December 2009. In a January 12 blog post, Drummond wrote that Google "uncovered evidence to suggest that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties."
In a March 22 New York Times interview, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said those episodes were "deeply troubling," and implied Chinese government involvement, although The Times said he "stopped short of saying the Chinese government was directly involved in those activities."
"We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results," Drummond wrote in the January 12 post. "These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered - combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web - have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. 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."
After negotiations with the Chinese government over whether Google could operate an unfiltered search engine legally in China, Google decided to close its Google.cn site and begin redirecting users. Drummond described the decision as a "sensible solution" in the March 22 blog post, and Google set up a website at http://www.google.com/prc/report.html, to monitor the ability of mainland China users to access Google's various services at the Hong Kong site.
According to Google, Chinese officials have continued to block certain Google services such as Blogger, Picasa, and YouTube, but Google's web search has generally remained available to mainland China users.
In a March 23 Washington Post story, an unnamed Chinese government official responded to Google's decision by asserting that the Chinese government had been patient with Google, but that the company had still "violated its written promise" to censor search results.
Google's decision to stop censoring search results drew praise from free speech and human rights advocates shortly after the company first announced it would stop filtering searches. In a Jan. 13, 2010 story in The New York Times, Rebecca MacKinnon, a Chinese Internet expert and fellow at the Open Society Institute, said that to remain in China meant Google would be risking the security of its users, many of whom are Chinese dissidents who used Gmail because of its encryption and overseas servers. "Unless they turn themselves into a Chinese company, Google could not win," MacKinnon said. "The company has clearly put its foot down and said enough is enough."
A Jan. 12, 2010 statement from Human Rights Watch said Google's decision highlights the importance of privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet. "A transnational attack on privacy is chilling, and Google's response sets a great example," Arvind Ganesan, Human Rights Watch's director said, according to the statement. "At the same time, this incident underscores the need for governments and companies to develop policies that safeguard rights."
When it began operations in China in 2006, Google agreed to filter certain searches at the Chinese government's request, according to a January 14 Washington Post story. When considering whether to expand Google's business interests to China, Google executives said that even a censored version of Google's site would provide Chinese citizens with greater access to information and lead to greater free expression.
According to the January 14 Post story, Google increasingly found itself at odds with Chinese authorities over the course of Google's four-year operation in China. During its time in China, Google occupied approximately 36 percent of the Chinese market, and was continually overshadowed by Baidu, the leading Chinese search engine, which occupied 58 percent of the market, a March 21 BusinessWeek story reported. Google's departure is expected to benefit Chinese-language Internet search engines like Baidu, which voluntarily filter results deemed inappropriate by Chinese authorities.
In a March 23 story in The New York Times, Yu Yang, chief executive of Analysys International, a Beijing research firm, said that Google's departure will cause stagnation in online Chinese space. "The whole industry will become worse," Yu said. "Without competition with Google, Baidu has no motivation to innovate."
On January 21, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton condemned the cyber attacks on Google at a press conference and called for worldwide Internet freedom. "A new information curtain is descending across much of the world," Clinton said. "We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."
After Google's March 22 announcement that its mainland China users would be redirected to Hong Kong, the Obama administration announced that, while it was disappointed that Google and China were unable to reach an agreement, it respected Google's decision.
"We have previously raised our concerns about this issue directly with the Chinese government," said Mike Hammer, a spokesman for Obama's National Security Council, in a March 22 statement. "As both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have stressed on several occasions, we are committed to Internet freedom and are opposed to censorship."
Chinese officials have made demands on U.S.-based Internet companies operating in mainland China in the past. In 2005, Yahoo provided information to the Chinese government from the Yahoo.cn account of a journalist which led to his conviction for divulging state secrets. (See "Endangered Journalists: Yahoo Assists China in Arresting Journalist" in the Fall 2005 issue of the Silha Bulletin, and "Jailed Chinese Reporter Joins Suit Against Yahoo! Inc." in the Summer 2007 Silha Bulletin.)
- RUTH DEFOSTER
SILHA RESEARCH ASSISTANT