Don’t be evil is Google’s unofficial mantra. But when the company decided to offer a censored version of its search engine in China, it had a bit of a rethink, devising a ‘scale of evil’ instead. “We decided that not to serve at all was worse evil,” Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt told reporters.
Where are we on the evil scale right now, Eric? On this occasion it seems to be China’s internet authorities who have taken the message most to heart. After weeks of speculation, they’ve renewed Google’s internet content provider licence for another year.
The background to the stand-off is well known. In January, Google issued a statement saying that it would no longer censor its web search at google.cn, and began redirecting all searches automatically through to google.com.hk, the Hong Kong version of the site where no restrictions apply.
That wasn’t acceptable to the Chinese authorities, which told Google that it would lose its licence if it continued with the redirect. In the international press, the confrontation was framed as a struggle between the valiant executives of Mountain View, California, and the exponents of the darker arts of censorship and control in Beijing. In the China media, Google was told it had to play by the local rules.
In fact, it was never quite that straightforward. After all, Google consented to a lengthy period in which its China search results were tampered with. And for four months, Beijing allowed the google.com.hk redirect, in technical breach of its own regulations.
But now we have a deal that allows Google to continue operating in China for the foreseeable future. Users have to make one additional click to leave google.cn to cross over into google.com.hk for web search (i.e. they are not taken there automatically). It doesn’t sound like much of a modification. But it’s enough for both sides to feel that honour has been saved.
Many doubted whether rapprochement was even possible, especially after Google’s refusal to continue self-censoring in China became such a high-profile issue.
“It is unprecedented for a private company to challenge Chinese internet censorship,” Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times. “In the past, there would have been no doubt that the Chinese government would have punished Google.”
One interpretation is that, this time around, Beijing looked at the bigger picture surrounding the case. It wanted to avoid creating another touchstone issue for Sino-US disagreement.
A complete ban would also have sent a contradictory message. One of Beijing’s gripes is that foreign firms refuse to transfer their technologies. Booting out one of the poster boys for online innovation hardly encourages others to set up shop.
A third assessment is that, even if Beijing desires a “Chinese internet”, it still wants its online giants to be competitive internationally. Rebecca MacKinnon, an academic with an interest in China’s internet policies, says that the government sees the sector as crucial to the country’s long term competitiveness. It makes little sense to shelter domestic firms completely. MacKinnon reckons many of China’s internet CEOs think so too, and may have been quietly lobbying on Google’s behalf.
So, for the moment, Google survives its head-to-head with the authorities. Investors welcomed the licence extension, and the company’s stock rose more than 2% on the news.
Not that Google has won the right to unfettered operations. Under the current compromise set-up Chinese users will be able to see the results of any search but if they then try to open links deemed undesirable by the authorities their server in China will block them. But this is a crucial distinction for Google: it can now claim that it is no longer involved in any of the censoring of searches itself.
The moral high ground may come at a cost. Going through the extra link to get to Google’s web search in Hong Kong is going to be a click too far for more impatient users. It will also make it harder for Google to serve as the default search engine for online portals, Chinese web browsers and mobile phones.
But for China’s internet users this will be a fondly-remembered week. Not only has their government shown an unexpectedly tolerant attitude to Google; news also broke that the software firm behind Green Dam had closed its office for lack of funds. The Green Dam was a controversial internet filter (see WiC22) that Beijing wanted installed on every computer – to further its powers of censorship – a move that led to mass online protest. Shanghai Daily reports that “Green Dam is on its way to disappearing” now that the software maker has laid off all its staff and stated that no more updates will be available.
Were he alive today, Orwell would likely be smiling.
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