Google and China: What You Need to Know

The ongoing battle between Google and China sometimes reads like a spy novel, featuring a giant technology company clashing with a cadre of totalitarian overlords, attacks by hackers apparently aimed at pinpointing citizen activists and dissidents, and grandstanding speeches by senators and congressmen about the Chinese threat. Guardian political columnist and historian Timothy Garton Ash recently called it “a defining story of our time.” Here’s our take on the most recent news and what you really need to know about this epic confrontation.


  • After a cyber attack that the company first revealed in January, which it said was aimed at identifying political dissidents in China, Google announced on Monday that it is now re-routing searches through Hong Kong, saying:

    Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on has been hard. We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach…is a sensible solution to the challenges we’ve faced.

  • The move by Google clearly leaves the field in China to domestic giant Baidu, which had been gaining on Google in search market share even before the U.S. company decided to leave — the Chinese company’s shares have climbed more than 50 percent since Google announced its decision in January. Other competitors likely to benefit include Microsoft, which has said that it continues to do business in China and is working with the Chinese government, as well as domestic Chinese players Tencent and Alibaba.
  • The second-largest mobile operator in China — China Unicom — has said it won’t install Google search on its new Android handsets as a result of Google’s actions. The company is reportedly in talks with Microsoft to use its Bing search service instead.
  • Domain name registration company Go Daddy has said that it will no longer register domain names in China. The company said that increased requirements for identifying registrants “appeared, to us, to be based on a desire by the Chinese authorities to exercise increased control over the subject matter of domain name registrations by Chinese nationals.”
  • According to the Indian prime minister, that country has heard from Dell that the giant computer maker is looking elsewhere for some or all of the $25 billion in business it does in China (although Dell has since denied this).
  • Google’s director of public policy, Alan Davidson, testified before a federal commission hearing on China on Wednesday, calling the decision to move servers to Hong Kong “a practical solution to the challenges we’ve faced — it’s entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China.” He also said that censorship of Google by the Chinese government was a trade issue, since it would favor local search companies. The Wall Street Journal has excerpts from the testimony, which is also posted in full on Scribd and embedded below.
  • David Drummond, Google’s chief legal counsel, talked to The Atlantic about the connection between the hacking attempt and the decision to stop censoring results, and why the company decided to wait so long after the hack attack to shut down its China-based search site. Google has also posted an official notice on its Google Enterprise blog for users of Google Apps talking about the effect that its Chinese moves will have on corporate users.
  • Sergey Brin has called upon the U.S. government and other countries to take action against China. But some have argued that Google isn’t really in the best position to offer moral advice to anyone about China, since it was the one who effectively caved in to the Chinese government and censored its search results for so long in an effort to build its business there. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, not normally a critic of Google’s practices, wrote:

    I’m no fan of Chinese censorship. I was greatly disappointed when Google caved into it. I’m glad they’re no longer doing it. But having done so, Google’s hardly the poster child to tell anyone else what to do. Not right now. Not yet. Not just because Google suddenly found it was no longer in its business interests to stay in China.

    Gawker called Google’s move “a clever way to dress up a security breach — and an embarrassing attempt to partner with China’s authoritarian leaders — as an act of nobility and courage,” a view that was echoed by author Sarah Lacy in a piece on TechCrunch entitled “Google’s China Stance: More about Business than Thwarting Evil.”

  • At the congressional hearing on China, a number of U.S. legislators praised Google’s move and at the same time bashed Microsoft for continuing to work with the Chinese government to censor search results.
  • Sergey Brin told the Wall Street Journal that he pushed for the company to get out of China because that country’s dictatorial government and repression of its citizens reminded him of the totalitarianism of his youth growing up in the former Soviet Union. He said that he was always concerned about the censoring of search results that Google was required to do by the Chinese government, but that his concerns grew after the Olympics as the government became even more repressive.
  • Philipp Lenssen of Google Blogoscoped has a rundown of what is likely to happen as a result of Google’s redirecting of searches to a Hong Kong domain. Although the Chinese government could simply block access to, that apparently is not happening (or possibly happening intermittently, according to Google).
  • Since Google announced its decision to move its servers, the state-run Xinhua News Agency published a government bulletin that said:

    Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks. This is totally wrong…[we] express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conduct.

  • According to the New York Times, the overseas edition of the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily, an organ of the ruling Communist Party, carried a front-page opinion piece that said: “For Chinese people, Google is not god, and even if it puts on a full-on show about politics and values, it is still not god. In fact, Google is not a virgin when it comes to values. Its cooperation and collusion with the U.S. intelligence and security agencies is well-known.”
  • However, the state news agency also published a piece calling the dispute a “shocking cultural clash between the West and the East” and said that the Chinese government “cannot afford to sit by and watch.”
  • For a great overview of some of the reaction within China to the moves by Google, check out Global Voices Online founder Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Steve Webel

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