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Google takes its argument with China outside

Google evidently wasn't kidding two months ago when it told the People's Republic of China that it would stop censoring search results on its google.cn site in response to that government's interference with its services and implicit support of hacking attempts against its computers.

google_hk_logo.png

Yesterday afternoon, Google followed through, redirecting google.cn visitors to its Hong Kong-based, uncensored google.com.hk site. In a blog post, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company said its actions complied with that region's distinct legal regime:

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.

The post said Google's research and sales operations in China would continue. But it also included this sentence:

Finally, we would like to make clear that all these decisions have been driven and implemented by our executives in the United States, and that none of our employees in China can, or should, be held responsible for them.

In that line, Google's executives don't sound too optimistic about the odds of Beijing tolerating this gambit. But it's possible they've played the "we'll take our ball and go home" card about as well as possible under the circumstances.

Hong Kong's special status, negotiated prior to its 1997 handover from British rule, may not have allowed a flourishing of democratic elections, but it has protected the region's freedoms of speech and of the press. And those liberties include access to the Internet, as journalism professor Andrew Lih explains in a helpful blog post.

The catch for residents of mainland China is that their access to Hong Kong sites runs through the government's wide-ranging filtering system. Google's relocated search engine isn't exempt from this blocking, as our story reports and researcher and activist Rebecca MacKinnon confirms.

The current stalemate could stabilize if the Chinese government decides that it can censor search results better than Google ever did. Or Beijing's communist rulers could determine that the real problem is Google's refusal to respect their authority, then do something more drastic than ordering up another round of anti-Google stories in the state-controlled media.

Either way, Google felt compelled to set up a new site tracking the availability of its sites and services inside China. Yesterday evening, this page reported YouTube, Google Sites and Blogger were blocked, while Google Docs, Picasa and Google Groups were partially blocked.

Google deserves a great deal of credit for standing up for human rights where others have not, and for doing so at a non-trivial risk to its own bottom line. As an employee of a company with a long-standing public pledge to "be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes" for the sake of truth, I have to respect another firm putting similar ideals into action.

At the same time, Google doing the right thing in China doesn't have to conflict with building its consumer Web-service businesses here. The fundamental bargain of its free applications -- if you trust us with your data so we can sell ads to match your interests, we won't charge you -- requires that users feel they're dealing with an ethical enterprise.

That's the case with me. I happen to use an increasing number of Google sites -- though I retain some hang-ups about giving the company any more business -- and feel reassured by its conduct in China.

What's your reaction? Let me know in the comments.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 23, 2010; 6:57 AM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , The Web  
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Comments

I like what Google has done. I expect they are willing to accept the consequences if China decides to block access. I thought it was kinda smarmy when they originally were going to allow censorship of their search results for folks in China. Seems like they decided to take a stand.

Posted by: tbva | March 23, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

You Go, Google! It's rare that any private actors can strike a substantial blow against communism anymore, and fact-deficient hyper-libs like to deprecate the seriousness of the Cold War, but these Google execs have done a momentous and really courageous thing here. Heck, I'd send a donation to this cause by Paypal. Hoo-rah! Let's liberate the last sixth of the world. By peaceful means of course, like we did the 4th and 5th sixths in 1989. "China, tear down that firewall!"

Posted by: Religulous | March 23, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Google is to be commended for its stand. Rare for a publicly traded company to do so with real risk to their balance sheet at stake. However, the incredible strength of that balance sheet makes taking such a risk much, much easier.

Posted by: Sojouner | March 23, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

I think this does support Google's public 'persona' as a well meaning entity.

Frankly, I wish more companies would be willing to enact bottom line ethical standards for dealing with other business and governments.

The only thing that bothers me about this, is that is seems like the decision was spurred mostly by a state sponsored attack; Also the relationship between the hackers and the Chinese government seems to be under-reported. Clearly the hackers operating in China do so at the behest of the State, this needs to be investigated and reported.

Posted by: gconrads | March 23, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I think everyone is making too big of an issue about Google's decision like they're the corporate version of Mother Teresa. They weren't big players in search in China. If they had real balls they would pull out entirely--but they're not. But everyone is patting them on the back for being "courageous" so at least they're winning the public relations game in America, and that's what matters to Google, let's not kid ourselves.

Posted by: nuzuw | March 23, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

I am more interested in the big a role the Google cofounder Sergey Brin has to do with the whole incident. Because of the dual stock class, he controls Google. While we can cherish Google's stand for our definition of human right - the access to unfiltered content, the history is full of examples of personal ideology, if left unchecked, drives countries or public companies to the ground.

I do hope all the hola will die down after the moving of Google servers to Hong Kong and Mr. Brin can use his immense wealth in other ways to benefit the human race.

Posted by: in_starbucks | March 23, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

CENSORSHIP and HUMAN RIGHTS: LESSONS FROM APARTHEID ERA

Google and GoDaddy’s defiance of China's censorship mandate illustrates the power of corporate social responsibility initiatives to influence and reshape the repressive policies of authoritarian regimes.

Secretary Clinton's recent remarks about the information curtain dividing the world, reminded me of the apartheid era where much greater injustice and unspeakable acts against humanity were challenged and ultimately overcome through the use of corporate codes of conduct.

Given the success of codes of conduct in ending apartheid, we should look at applying the same principles to lift the information curtain China and in other repressive countries.

This was the subject of an article on the International Business Law Advisor---The Great Firewall of China: How Lessons from the Apartheid Era Can Lift the Information Curtain published on January 22, 2010 www.intlbusinesslaw.com

Posted by: Scueto | March 25, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

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