So the other shoe finally dropped yesterday morning. Google announced that it would essentially shut down Google.cn (China hosted site) and instead redirect users to Google.com.hk (Hong Kong site).
Huge amount of chatter about this already, as you might guess. china/divide is providing you with a trifecta: Charles Custer kicked it off yesterday morning, Kai Pan continued in more detail, including links to background info, and I’m here in the wee hours with the dregs.
Since my colleagues have already taken this issue on directly, I’ll just do a bit of meta-bitching on the whole Hong Kong gambit. As a lawyer, I always see Hong Kong first and foremost as an offshore jurisdiction. To that extent, whether you put Google.cn services in Hong Kong, or Singapore, or Tunisia, it doesn’t really matter.
One caveat to that, of course. Beijing does have ultimate authority in Hong Kong despite the separate legal system and, in sensitive situations, will actually exercise that power to curtail certain kinds of political activity. I don’t see that happening in this case, but since it is always a theoretical possibility, that does distinguish Hong Kong from other offshore jurisdictions.
For the most part, though, this “move” to Hong Kong is quite meaningless. If Google decided to shut off its China site and simply required users to make do with existing offshore capabilities (e.g. Google.com, maybe with added language features), that would have been equivalent. All offshore jurisdictions look the same to the Great Firewall, and all content is subject to the same filtering. Hong Kong, despite having a Disneyland, is not a Magic Kingdom, and Tinkerbell cannot sprinkle pixie dust to make keyword filtering and IP blocking disappear.
I think Kai said it better, though (and certainly in a more straightforward fashion):
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.
Indeed. But even if we realize that the Hong Kong move might be slightly underwhelming in its practical effect, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot more going on here. I think the Google move has very little to do with functionality but a lot to do with perception and public relations. Or at least that’s the way it’s turning out. And in the struggle to spin the story, Google is winning hands down thus far.
Consider the “story” Google can tell as of this morning:
1. Google couldn’t live with censorship in PRC.
2. Google didn’t want to pull out of PRC and leave all of its loyal users stranded.
3. Google therefore stayed in PRC, but moved to HK, a jurisdiction not subject to censorship requirements.
4. Google has stayed true to its principles and its users while following all relevant legal requirements.
I have to admit that it sounds like a great story. Of course, that’s what David Drummond, Google’s top lawyer and VP, wants us to think:
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.
Here’s an alternative version of events from the other side:
1. Google promised to follow all legal requirements in PRC.
2. Google subsequently thought it was deserving of special treatment, reneging on its promise.
3. Refused special treatment, Google had to close Google.cn and rely on offshore services, essentially going back to where it was, physically and legally, pre-2006.
4. Google is now offshore and subject to treatment identical to that of all other foreign sites.
Yeah, the first version sounds much better. But which spin will be picked up by the press? So far, it looks like Google’s move has generated favorable coverage for the search engine.
Google Tries to Route Users Around Chinese Censors – This is a gift headline from the LA Times. By “moving” to Hong Kong, Google can say that they are now able to offer Chinese users content that they no longer filter themselves (recall that Drummond quote suggesting that users will now be able to receive unfiltered search results). This conveniently ignores the fact that the HK site is subject to the same filtering (i.e. the Great Firewall) process to which all offshore sites are subject. This headline suggests that HK is a backdoor into China — it isn’t.
Google Quits Censoring Search in China – This CNN article suggests that a “showdown” with the PRC may ensue and quotes Drummond, who says Google is worried that the PRC may block the HK site. Brilliant tactical move there. If Beijing does block the entire domain, they will be seen as overreacting to a sensible Google compromise; in reality all the PRC would be doing is blocking another foreign information site. While blocking a site never makes Beijing look good, such a move is certainly not unprecedented. By throwing out the possibility, Drummond is setting up Google to play the victim, inviting the press to report a total site block as Beijing having a hissy fit after an orderly, sensible Google moved offshore voluntarily.
Chinese Internet Users Braced to Lose Google – From the FT, a headline suggesting an epic battle with earth-shattering consequences.
Misleading, again, because the most likely scenario right now is that China residents will continue to have access to Google sites but that Google.com.hk content will continue to be subject to the Great Firewall.
Is it possible that Beijing will freak out and shut down all Google services? Sure, it could happen, but Beijing would end up with a worse international reputation and receive few benefits with respect to controlling Internet content. The current situation already gives Beijing more than sufficient control via the Great Firewall.
Even the White House, via this Associated Press article, has gotten into the game of pretending that some sort of grand bargain was possible had Beijing been willing to compromise on matters of current law:
The White House says it’s disappointed that Google and the Chinese government have been unable to reach an agreement that would allow the Internet search engine to operate freely in China.
Yes indeed, quite disappointing. But hardly surprising that an agreement on “operating freely” was not possible. That wouldn’t have been a compromise, it would have been Beijing caving into Google’s demands. Once again, the issue framing seems to be in Google’s favor.
It’s been quite a day. No one saw this Hong Kong gambit coming, and Google certainly gets props for keeping all this under wraps. And even before this latest move, Google had been portrayed in the Western media as the innocent, idealistic foreign newcomer faced with the reality of a tough, authoritarian government trying to pave the way for the local talent. The Hong Kong move can now be added to this narrative, and if initial press accounts are any indication, Google is well on its way to winning the messaging war.