We Will Self-Censor No Longer!

It’s been over two months since sophisticated hackers originating in mainland China attacked Google’s servers with the intention of collecting information from the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Following an investigation, Google determined it was highly likely that the attacks resulted from, or were abetted by, the Chinese government. This realization, and the ongoing internal conflict of government mandated self-censorship, led Google to announce that they were rethinking their future in China, with the possibility of withdrawing operations altogether.  On Monday afternoon, Google made good on that threat. All traffic directed at the previously self-censored Google.cn was rerouted to Google’s unrestricted site in Hong Kong, Google.com.hk. In response, China promptly censored the mainland’s access to taboo search results from the Hong Kong site. For the citizens of China, information is now as restricted as ever. Google’s actions infuriated the Chinese government, who’s awkward tolerance for Hong Kong’s free society under the “one country, two systems” policy is well-known. So in whose interests does Google’s decision serve, exactly?

Why, their own, of course. Google’s “don’t be evil” ethic never jived well with censoring search results about human rights and blocking websites on the Tiananmen Square massacre. They rationalized their initial entry into China in the hopes that their presence there would eventually lead to a loosening of restrictions on information. After little movement in that direction, growing indignation coincided with human rights related cyber attacks. Google’s humanitarian image and attitude of primum non nocere were being compromised, and inaction would have exacerbated the offense. While the potential behind the Chinese market is critical to Google’s longterm success, it accounted for just a few hundred million of their $23.6 billion in revenue last year. Right now, it hurts them more ideologically to willfully self-censor content than it helps them financially. By routing traffic to Hong Kong, they remove this self-inflicted wound, and place the onus of censorship rightfully on the commies. They also grievously offend the government by resurfacing, to an international audience, the stark difference in personal freedom between citizens of Hong Kong and those of the rest of China.

Google’s response was a measured and precise kick in the nuts to the Chinese government. The average citizen will be largely unaffected by the change, but if the government gets pissed enough, they might choose to pull access to all Google services. If Maps, Scholar, Earth, etc became unavailable to mainland China, that would certainly result in a considerable impact to the average internet user there. Google thoughtfully publishes a list of services being blocked by the Chinese government on any given day, which applies even more pressure to the authorities.

In this game of chess, it’s China’s move, but there don’t seem to be many good ones available to them. They will likely condemn Google’s decision and simply block the same content going to the redirected site in Hong Kong. Past that, a turbulent relationship will exist between these two, as the venom of Google’s bite slowly rots away at the outer facade of the Chinese government. Ultimately, it’s clear that Google finds that they can more effectively reduce restrictions on information from outside mainland China than they can from within.

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~ by Wil Finley on March 23, 2010.

3 Responses to “We Will Self-Censor No Longer!”

  1. That’s amazing, Wil. I can’t believe they have “sites” blocked, and of course youtube…no kitten videos for them.

  2. I bet Google gets a chunk of change from advertising in China.

    • They make around a half billion in revenue in China, but with a lower profit margin than in their business in the US. It’s less than 1/50th their annual total revenue.

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