January 12, 2010

Bulletin: Google Will No Longer Censor Chinese Search Results -- May End China Operations

Greetings. Almost exactly four years ago, when I first visited Google's Santa Monica offices and presented a talk on Internet issues, one of the topics that I discussed was Google's operations in China.

Google's presence in China has been controversial from the beginning, particularly to the extent that they involved the operation of a version of Google Search (google.cn) that presented censored search results as required by the Chinese government.

Some observers have characterized such an arrangement as a "deal with the devil" from day one, but I've preferred to view the situation in somewhat more nuanced terms. Google indicates to Chinese users when results have been censored, and Google has argued that it made sense to have a presence in China -- even on such terms -- to provide at least some access to Google resources for Chinese Internet users, rather than those users having no access at all.

I've found this argument to have considerable merit, but I've never been happy about this state of affairs. Google and China is probably the single most frequently mentioned Google-related policy area about which I've been asked my opinion over the years. And I've never been fully satisfied with my answers to such queries.

Chatting with Googlers after that talk I gave in Santa Monica, I remember expressing my specific concerns that the China arrangement appeared unstable in light of historical precedent in China -- particularly in regards to a very poor human rights record -- and that the probability of some sort of "trust" breakdown appeared rather high.

Now it appears that the solid excretory matter has hit the fan. You can read considerable details over on the Official Google Blog.

Briefly, after a series of data breaches and attacks related to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists (and attacks targeting other firms as well that Google discovered in the course of investigations), Google has announced that it will not be willing to continue censoring Google Search results for China going forward, even though this may result in Google having to shut down all Google operations in China.

I congratulate Google on this decision. They attempted over the years -- in what I believe to have been good faith -- to thread a very complex policy needle to avoid having a major proportion of the world's population ending up being cut off from services that most of us now take for granted in our everyday lives. Google's hope was that China would respond in a positive way with improved civil rights and less fettered access to information for China's citizens.

But China appears to have dropped the ball and has been moving backwards toward ever more restrictions. Google is responding to the current situation in a resolute and completely appropriate manner, even though the negative financial impact on the firm from this decision could be quite significant to say the least. I hope that Google detractors will remember the events today the next time that they're tempted to claim that Google only cares about money and nothing else.

Exactly how these events related to China will all play out in detail is unclear at this point, but Google's statement that they are unwilling to continue censoring Chinese search results seems completely unequivocal.

Once again, I applaud Google's decision to take a "new approach" toward dealing with China from this point forward. Three cheers and two thumbs up!


Update: CNBC Interview with Google's David Drummond regarding this situation (New York Times Video -- ~11 minutes)

Posted by Lauren at January 12, 2010 05:13 PM | Permalink
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