By now, most of you should have already heard about Google having formally withdrawn its search operations from China. This involves web, news, and image search. Moreover, they’ve redirected Google.cn to their Hong Kong website.
Given that Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, Google.com.hk is not bound under the same censorship laws as mainland China. Therefore, the Hong Kong version of Google has always returned non-manipulated search results, unlike Google.cn, which Google had previously agreed to self-censor for direct access to the Chinese internet market.
For those of you who are cheering Google on for uncensoring their search results for the Chinese masses, you’re idiots. Google has done nothing of the sort. Google has simply done a three-card monte on you all. Consider the end result:
- Mainland Chinese users going to previously self-censored Google.cn are now being redirected to the never censored Google.com.hk.
- But mainland Chinese netizens still cannot access content the Chinese government deems objectionable because the Great Firewall will still filter them out.
- This is the same scenario as before, whenever mainland Chinese netizens tried searching via Google.com or any other non-Google.cn websites.
Yes, they’ll get uncensored search results, including images and excerpts, but when they try to click through to the actual source, they’ll get blocked by the GFW. And this is “at best”. Often, the images may not even load and the page will just hang.
- Google is praised by Westerners and anti-censorship foes for no longer engaging in self-censorship.
- Google is praised for withdrawing from evil censoring China.
- Google is praised for being moral, for following its moral values.
Give it a rest.
More disappointingly, leading internet and technology news blogs like Mashable and TechCrunch — both websites that should know their stuff — have not made a single mention that this move changes next to nothing for the mainland Chinese user, focusing only on Google “uncensoring” and “redirecting” to the Hong Kong site that is “outside of China’s firewall”. Such details are strictly true, but misleading. Google.com.hk is outside China’s firewall, but the Chinese netizens aren’t. Reporting such details is fine, but of these details, what’s the significance?
For those opposed to Google engaging in self-censorship, that’s enough significance. But what of the Chinese netizens, the same netizens both Google and so many others have been clamoring that they’re fighting for? What now for the mainland Chinese internet user? What have they gained?
Let me spell it out again: They have gained no greater access to government censored material than they already had when Google was operating Google.cn.
Guys, let’s be clear, this is not Google lifting the veil from the eyes of Chinese internet users. This is Google taking their hand off of that veil and letting the Chinese government hold it themselves. Yes, that’s admirable in of itself, for not partaking in the state of censorship, but whereas Google once was in a position to maybe even lift up an edge furtively while the Chinese government wasn’t paying attention, or even in a position to slowly talk the Chinese government into letting up, now it has absolutely no sway. It may even have negative sway. And because of how politicized this entire affair has been, it has resulted in negative sway for everyone else in support of censorship reform, governments, NGOs, and individuals alike.
Previously, as long as self-censored Google.cn existed, Chinese netizens could opt to go to uncensored Google.com or any other Google search property. Google.cn allowed these other websites to remain accessible. With Google.cn now temporarily redirecting to Google.com.hk, Google is challenging the Chinese government to block all Google search properties, ensuring permanent darkness in Baidu for mainland Chinese netizens.
If — or when — this happens, China’s netizens lose Google’s search algorithms and search result rankings altogether, which are qualitatively different from those returned by Baidu, a search engine that doesn’t just manipulate search results in compliance with Chinese censorship policies but also manipulates them for profit1. They also lose side-door access to uncensored but GFW-filtered Google.com and etc. Before, mainland Chinese netizens had a choice between Baidu and Google.cn, and Google.cn and Google.com (or Google.com.hk). Now, there is a high risk of them losing all choice.
Does anyone still think what Google has done here means anything remotely close to uncensoring the internet for Chinese netizens?
That Google.cn domain name is currently redirecting users to Google.com.hk, right? What do you think is required for that Google.cn domain name to exist? An ICP license, which is about to expire. Do you think the Chinese government is going to renew it? They may revoke it at any moment now…and the redirect is gone. When that happens, mainland Google users will have to manually direct themselves to Google.com.hk or Google.com. Google will let them, but will the Chinese government?
Yes, Google has now thrown the ball back into the Chinese government’s court, challenging them to either:
- Accept only GFW-censored Google search; or
- Block all Google search.
Yes, as Rebecca MacKinnon points out, this is escalating the game of awareness: Will the Chinese government draw more attention to this issue by doing the latter? Will they do so knowing that it might lead to even more of their own citizens becoming aware of their government’s active censorship and how far their government will go to maintain that censorship?
Yes, challenging the Chinese government to do so may allow Google to indirectly cause more discontent amongst the Chinese with their government’s censorship policies.
No, I’m not certain nor even confident that this increased discontent so will lead to any major political revolution or reform on those censorship policies. There are just too many other important concerns most Chinese people have to go to war with their government over this one issue.
A. The Chinese government does nothing.
- Except maybe revoking or letting the ICP license for Google.cn and G.cn expire, so the redirect would no longer work.
- But Google.com.hk remains accessible with its non-manipulated search results, though actual access is still filtered through the GFW.
- Mainland Google users who henceforth begin typing “google.com.hk” instead of “google.cn” into their browsers may be exposed to more search results along with their corresponding excerpts and maybe images. Or not.
- Somewhere down the line, Chinese netizens — or maybe their children — will start asking why there is no Google.cn and the story may told.
- As long as the government is providing everything else the Chinese want and this becomes the next human need or desire left unmet, demand for change may build up.
- But basically, this is the same scenario as Google.cn still existing, except Google exchanges direct China search market access for the approval of human rights activists. Change in censorship will come, over time, after other broad social needs are met.
B. The Chinese government responds by blocking foreign Google search properties.
- This includes Google.com.hk.
- The Chinese government selectively allows Google’s other services in as long as they don’t break any laws themselves.
- The vast minority of Chinese internet users would be miffed, a portion of them hopping on their VPNs to deal with it, when it comes to web search. No critical mass achieved.
- Chinese netizens overall lose Google.cn as an alternative search engine to Baidu but otherwise will never see anything more than what they had before. For them, the web remains as censored as it has always been.
- Like Scenario A, as long as other needs are met, the internet censorship issue will build up slowly over time, albeit slightly slower than in Scenario A because there’s slightly less people being exposed to what exists but cannot be accessed out there.
- Google loses complete China search market access in exchange for the approval of human rights activists.
C. The Chinese government loses the plot and blocks anything and everything related to Google.
- Chaos ensues, netizens march on the streets, recruiting the workers and peasants, marching with banners, staging sit-ins, erecting barricades, holding hunger strikes, sculpting statues, singing songs, and risk getting carted off or gunned down by mobilized military.
- Censorship reform is catalyzed.
- Or not. The Chinese, in their amazing capacity to endure, conscious of the very real progress the Chinese government has thus far delivered to them in so many other areas, decide this still isn’t big enough for them to rise up and rebel.
- They adapt, switch to other services, and continue with life, making the best of things.
- They may even begin to resent Google and “the West” for abandoning them, for not respecting their circumstances enough to work with them and instead end up being seen as working against them in the guise of working “for” them.
- Censorship reform may be damaged or it may just continue its merry slow course as with the above two scenarios, a course that doesn’t involve Google or “the West”. At best, Google might be remembered as having been ahead of its time. At worst, Google will be marginalized as Chinese of the future champion the cautious relaxing of their political censorship policies as having been rightfully cautious and ultimately valid because peace and stability was maintained while achieving relatively the same end.
I don’t see a realistic scenario where censorship reform is going to happen any sooner because of what Google has done today, where current Chinese netizens and their interests are actually respected and served.
Look, I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love for this to snowball into an — ideally peaceful — quick transition towards less government censorship and greater internet freedom for the Chinese. I really would, but I’m not convinced that will be the case or is even likely.
Please convince me.
- “In Brief: Google’s China Move” by Andrew Lih.
- “What It’s Like to Search the Web in China Right Now” by James Fallows on The Atlantic.
- “Questions for Google If/When Google.cn Shuts Down” by Bill Bishop on DigiCha.
- “A handy cheat sheet for interpreting the Google China story” by Will Moss on Imagethief. (added March 30th)
- “Google In China Is Better Than No Google In China“
- “Google Leaving China Will Not Be A Revolution, Televised Or Not“
- “Google China’s Exit: Nicole Kempton, Are You Serious?“
- Have you yet heard that Baidu allegedly confessed to accepting 3 million RMB from Sanlu over the melamine tainted baby milk power scandal? [↩]