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Summary:

The ongoing battle between Google and China sometimes reads like a spy novel, featuring a giant tech company clashing with totalitarian overlords and cyber attacks by shadowy forces. Here’s our take and what you really need to know about this epic confrontation.

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 Google.cn 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 Google.com.hk, 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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  1. “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.”

    Unless I’ve missed something in the discussion over the past few months, Google was trying to gain share from Baidu, and not the other way around. ~60% market share (I’ve seen several different figures hence the estimate) clearly establishes Baidu as the market leader.

    Moving aside from this particular point (which I’ll grant may be an error of phrasing, and not necessarily fact), I’m unclear about how the migration of Google.cn business to Hong Kong actually “is a sensible solution to the challenges [they’ve] faced.” What stops the Chinese government from blocking outbound requests to Google.hk? In effect, the outcome (censorship) is not fundamentally different. Seems like Google is, once again, not taking a true stand against censorship.

    One other thing worries me, here. Maybe it’s paranoia, but I don’t think so: What happens to Google employees remaining in the marketing and R&D shops in China? Bullying? Arrest? I really wouldn’t want to be an employee of a company taking such a public stand against the Chinese government.

    At the end of the day, I can’t see where Google comes off well in any of this. In addition the fact that the company’s recent “stand” against Chinese censorship feels very disingenuous (after bowing to the CN government as a condition of entry), it is entirely possible that Google is putting its Chinese staff at unnecessary risk.

    At the end of the day, we’re talking about search engines, here. Hopefully I’m wrong about the potential human backlash.

    1. Thanks for the comment, IS. As far as Baidu gaining on Google in terms of market share, I simply meant that it was increasing and Google’s was decreasing — but you’re probably right that “gaining on” isn’t the right phrase to use there.

      I think you are right (and certainly not alone) in seeing Google’s move as somewhat cynical, at least in part. And I agree that we should be concerned about the potential backlash on Google employees in China.

  2. An epic confrontation? More like Tyson – Spinks, you ask me. Google was given a choice of compliance or leaving. They chose to leave.

    I’m proud that this American company is the best Internet company in the world and pleased that they have stated that censorship is wrong and won’t be a part of it.

    Unfortunately, by leaving sales and marketing and R&D in China and moving servers to Chinese Hong Kong, all they wound up doing it seems is try to put a nice public face on the harsh reality that they still want in on that ethereal enticing giant Chinese market.

    They should have stayed or pulled out. Not try and find a middle ground on their principals.

    1. That’s a fair point, Brian. It does seem as though Google is trying to eat its cake and have it too.

  3. Google is a worldwide company, and has employees from Taiwan, Japan , Vietnam, Russia, India etc. Its employees object to Google Communist China maps which shows all of Taiwan, parts of Japan, Vietnam, Russia, India etc as being part of Communist China (not just contested, but wholly part of China). Baidu is in Communist China only and carries maps and censorship comments as dictated by Mao’s successors in Communist China. Govt employees, military, police and
    communist party cadres and individuals who don’t want to affront them use Baidu not out of choice but out of fear of unpleasant consequences (being branded a traitor). Google decided to listen to its employees and not to the Mao Tse Tung
    comrade successors who run the Communist China government.

  4. Google’s David Drummond has been sentenced to six month of jail by a Court in Rome for his failure to censor some kid-beating video sooner. Is he speaking from his jail cell from Rome?

    The Chinese being harsher could sentence Google’s Brin to longer terms due to the spread of porn in China by Google.

    1. Might as well sue an ISP.
      That a person would have had to search for porn to find it on google.

  5. If Google is going to stop censorship in China, will they be consistent and stop censorship in other countries too? Google currently has censorship and privacy laws of countries where it operates, such as Germany, France and Poland.

    1. Hmm; thats an interesting point; it doesn’t seem like there’s been much talk or consideration (public, at least) about making any moves in those countries.

    2. That is a good point, Lil S. — Google does censor its search results in other countries as well, although China is the only country (that we know of) where Google has been asked to identify dissidents.

  6. see what Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin said about their decision:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704266504575141064259998090.html

  7. george kyaw naing Thursday, March 25, 2010

    I can’t decide if it is a clever move or not on Google’s part.
    They mix 2 issues: censorship and hacking/espionage.
    By moving to Hong Kong, what objectives do they achieve? Just get China bad publicity?
    Maybe that is the goal.

    Concerning censorship, Google expect that in every nation, every continent. What else does it expect?
    Can I run a Jihad site, an Al-Qaeda recruitment site in US? Porn sites? Then what is porn in Asian countries, is very very different from what is porn in US?

    Concerning hacking/espionage, it is part of the game. What else does Google expect? Does it feel secure in Hong Kong?

    I AM NOT BASHING Google. Far from it.
    I want it to STAY, STAND and fight. Maybe I/m asking Google too much.

    EthicMinds
    george kyaw naing

  8. LOL how much of a rip of Google layout is Baidu.com

  9. Very informative article Mathew. I remember when Google bowed to China few years back for censorship, Google Watch website strongly criticized Google and taunted it for its slogan “Don’t be Evil”.

    In today’s information age, although we do require some level of regulations, information should not be stopped from users be it Iran or China. Having said that, I also dislike the idea of Google becoming the big brother.

  10. It’s hard for me to get my shorts in a bunch over Americans telling other countries how to run their land.

    Yes, democracy is a wonderful goal and fighting for it, spending a significant chunk of my life on behalf of civil rights, civil liberties, here at home is a measure of that conviction.

    On a global scale, I’ve had to commit to as many fights against the United States stepping in with everything from CIA/NSA-sponsored front organizations to good old fashioned imperial armies to invade and control our adversaries. Some of whom weren’t especially adversarial. I don’t seem to recall any terrorist acts by VietNam or Iran on our soil, for example.

    So – I keep the politics of democratic progress around the world to the political arena. I recommend continued commerce as one of the best ways to support the opportunity for that progress. Yes, and everyone makes a buck along the way.

    Disclaimer: I own enough Baidu to afford at least 2 dinners for the family at a great Chinese restaurant.

  11. This Week in Review: Anonymous news comments, two big media law cases, and a health coverage critique » Nieman Journalism Lab Friday, March 26, 2010

    [...] insight into the details of the decision and Google’s rationale, and Mathew Ingram has a good backgrounder on Google-China relations. Not surprisingly, not everyone’s wowed by Google’s move: [...]

  12. Wow! TTTT, I WISH I had bought Baidu shares and anticipated Google’s leaving China! Jeez, I could have made a killing.

    1. I was thinking the same thing, Shawn — that would have been a pretty smart trade.

  13. Many people were also saying this was a merely a cover for their declining China division, but based on market share, Google has been gaining for the past few months, so it seems that they are more afraid of potential IP losses through hacking than anything.

  14. The value of the associated publicity here is being mightily overlooked. Google has been playing king of the mountain, for quite some time now, with the public limelight (tech). The short-term move of leaving China is a PR victory that wins a lot of big points with their primary stakeholders and does not preclude future re-entry into the Chinese market. I hesitate to say outright that the issue of Censorship here should be viewed as incidental, but motives are rarely one-dimensional. To put it another way, Google is extremely good at magic tricks.

  15. Google actively censors in other countries (in fact, it willingly censors political speech in India; it shut down an entire message board because a government official was criticized there). So, the claim that this is about censorship is just a fabrication. Google is most likely getting out of China because it was getting its butt kicked by Baidu.

    Google is a monopolist; if it can’t get a monopoly, it leaves. And it couldn’t use its money to buy the regulations it wanted in China the way it can – and is – in the United States. (It has successfully used lobbying money to buy itself “network neutrality” regulations and legislation which apply to all other ISPs but not to it.) But it couldn’t just tell shareholders it was giving up, so it needed an excuse to pull out. This was the “convenient” excuse, and the Obama administration – to which Google contributed nearly $1 million during the election campaign and then more during the transition – was glad to go along.

  16. Google’s Horowitz on What Buzz Ultimately Aims To Do Friday, March 26, 2010

    [...] Google and China: What You Need to Know [...]

  17. Mao Ze Wrong Monday, March 29, 2010

    China needs its own homegrown search engine, with built in switches for degrees of truth, censorship and nationalistic pride. That’s why we will soon be launching choogling.com

    See details at http://chinareallysucks.com/Site/New_Stuff/Entries/2010/3/29_Google_goes%2C_but_you_can_keep_on_Choogling.html

  18. Coming soon…. From CRS/@

    Get ready for the launch of China’s first comprehensive English-language search engine, designed entirely in China specifically for the Chinese audience. No more hand wringing. No more blaming outsiders for lack of cultural sensitivity. No need for censorship. And, no more controversy!
    Using the latest in search algorithms (both what we could develop in China and adapt from established search engines), our IT specialists have developed an unique search engine with capabilities far advanced over any other search engine, and targeted solely at the world’s largest internet market – China.
    So say goodbye to Google. Who needs another outside voice telling the world’s oldest civilization how to search or what the results should be? Soon, googling will become choogling (www.choogling.com), focusing the power of the Chinese to search.
    choogling offers a bevy of new features never seen in a search engine. That’s because it is the FIRST search engine ever devised solely with China and the unique Chinese search market in mind. Built-in are highly-sensitive switches allowing the user to choose the level and focus of EVERY search.
    Two major advances completely remove the need for any censorship or fear of future government interference. Click the “waiguoren” tab, and you get a shockingly exact view of Chinese issues, without any censorship or sugar coating. Click the “zhonguoren” tab and results tumble forth in a mainland-sensitive manner, as if direct from Zhongnanhai ! No more battles about correctness, or questions of how to censor results. choogling does it all.
    So, forget your VPNs and proxy servers. Give google the boot. From now on, everyone in China can keep on choogling.
    Launch details to follow within days!!!!

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  20. lighting cameraman Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Would I be wrong to assume that if the Chinese government chooses not to renew Google’s licence, their next step would be to black list Google.com.hk in their firewall.

  21. Government Control Over RIM Chips Away at Web Freedoms Friday, August 13, 2010

    [...] around the planet may be the most prominent example of how the Internet is changing lives today. Earlier this year, it was China censoring Google, and now India is demanding that Research In Motion provide the Indian government access to [...]

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