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.
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.
March 23, 2010; 6:57 AM ET
Categories: Policy and politics , The Web
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