Google Threatens to Stop Following Censorship Rules. Is This A Joke?

January 13, 2010

Apparently not. This is the Big Story today, and probably for the rest of the week.

Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by announcing it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese website.

In an unexpected announcement, the technology company said the decision followed a cyber attack which it believes was an attempt to gather information on Chinese human rights activists.

It also comes amid a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen the blocking of numerous sites and social networking services hosted overseas, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn, and potentially the company’s offices in China. (The Guardian)

Cynic and all-around horrible person that I am, I wonder if Google would be doing this if they hadn’t screwed the pooch on the China market several years ago and were still doing a fairly shitty job trying to catch up to Baidu. But that’s just me, I can always find some asshole point of view for any story.

Does Google think they have some sort of leverage that can be used here? What’s their real end game? If they get kicked out of China, will they start copying Chinese-language novels again? Should I start backing up all my Gmail files? Someone help!

This should be an unending source of fun for everyone for days to come. Stay tuned.

13 thoughts on “Google Threatens to Stop Following Censorship Rules. Is This A Joke?

  1. Tian

    I too am bitten by the cynic’s bug. A corporation’s goal — let’s ignore google’s lofty marketing for the moment — is to make money.
    Google, a technology company, is supposedly leaving a potentially lucrative market just because of a few hackers? All those Phd’s they hired don’t know how to respond?

    Doesn’t make sense. Yet this whole thing is being reported uncritically as-is in the press.

    1. Stan Post author

      I think it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s not a question of being able to stop hackers, it’s about what the company will accept with respect to interference with its processes. If they want to follow China’s rules, they have to accept certain things. If they cannot, then they pull out.

      I think they were OK with the censorship, but this behind-the-scenes hacking apparently pissed some folks off big time. I’m not judging Google. I’ve always said, if you want to stay in the country, follow the rules. If not, get out. Either way, you need to be comfortable with what you’re doing.

  2. Hang

    I admit I’m a fan of Google. However, I think it’ll be a stupid decision to pull out of China. Censorship is not friendly with Baidu, either. If I were the CEO/Chairman of Baidu, I’d be extremely happy to see Google’s threat. Google sounds like a sore loser!

    Is Google serious or just bluffing? Let’s see.

  3. Joyce Lau

    Has it occurred to anyone that Google might actually be doing the right thing? Maybe it’s just sick of its product being censored and hacked into. Fair enough.

    Funny that the outrage is aimed at Google, and not at the government breaking into accounts and censoring the news.

    You can’t compare Baidu. As a Chinese company, it wouldn’t have these qualms about free speech, etc. Plus, since it’s all but unknown outside China, it has no choice.

    Baidu needs China. Google doesn’t.

    From a business standpoint, it makes sense for Google to stay in China, even if it’s not doing great. The potential market is huge, and operations are cheap. I don’t think Google is pulling out for business reasons. I think it’s a free speech issue.

    I don’t think Google is being a sore loser. I think they are standing up for rights. (You can’t take away the cultural difference that the company, and its founders, are American).

    And they haven’t pulled out yet. They’re offering China the chance to — shock, horror — actually let a search engine do its job. (Of course, THAT’s not going to happen).

    If anyone is losing out, it’s the Chinese people. You can’t write anything critical without having your email hacked into, your blog blocked, or maybe even being thrown in jail.

    No YouTube. No Twitter. No Blogspot. And soon, no Google.

    Thank god I live in Hong Kong.

  4. Tim

    I suspect Google is allowed to have more than one reason to take a stand. Itís not pulling out by the way, but threatening to if they cannot manage to find a common ground with the govt. Also, from what I have been reading, although their revenues have been growing here, China is not its most lucrative market. It may be an issue of sour grapes, but there have been serious barriers to entry in this market for Google, what with the inconsistent access to its webpage and gmail to Baidu behaving like a Chinese version of the original Napster.

    By the way, did anybody else notice the irony in that the one guy in the Guardian article who was critical of Googleís justification is the Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown?

  5. Michael

    I can’t understand why there is so much cynicism directed towards Google. They keep launching excellent and often revolutionary products that we now take for granted – and all for free. Remember in the pre-Gmail days when other web-based email providers would only offer a measly few Mb of capacity? Then Googl came aong with unlimited emails. And I would be a fan of theirs for Google Maps and Google Earth alone. I’m also love Google books and the Google news archive. Do people in China even know what they’re missing?
    Google’s mission seems to open up the world’s various information sources to the public (books, maps, video, news archives, email and now socia media) and present them in an easy-to-use format. You can see how this mission is inevitably going to bring them into a head on clash with a government that is obsessed with controlling and manipulating information and often keeping it from the public. Maybe Google just decided that its core activities and directions just aren’t compatible with being in China, despite the size and influence of the Chinese internet. Rather than bashing Google, it would be interesting to hear from Chinese commentators on how they think Google should have gone in China – is it possible to reach a compromise on providing the public with the best access to things such as search, news, books, maps, online video, not to mentio secure email? If you were president of Google what would you do? Is it possible to have a ‘Google with Chinese characteristics’ without losing what makes Google such a success?

  6. John

    One thing many of you are missing is how Google would lose even more of their “do no evil” image if they were to continue kowtowing to China’s Big Brother ideology. Though Google is risking losing their presence in China, it would be worse for them in all of the other countries if they tried to continuing working while the PRC it showing such blatant disregard for basic ideals such as privacy.

    The ideals behind the Google brand are a huge component of how people perceive it, and in the eyes of the U.S. and other markets there is no way to reconcile it with China’s leadership.

  7. Tian

    “Has it occurred to anyone that Google might actually be doing the right thing? Maybe itís just sick of its product being censored and hacked into. Fair enough.”

    Sorry, I don’t buy that at all. As a tech company, you pretty much expect challenges like that. In fact, you should *welcome* it as it makes your system stronger. One can’t shy away from challenges when one’s the king.

    It’s hard to guess the motivations for Google bailing out.
    One thing we know for sure is that it has not done well vs. Baidu. Kaifu Lee, a star poached from microsoft, left Google recently. That should tell you the state of its Chinese operation.

    It’s conceivable that Google thinks its only edge against Baidu lies in giving the Chinese more open information, to go where Baidu can’t.
    Otherwise it’ll close up shop and divert its resources to better use elsewhere. Fine. To be able to dress this all up as a matter of principle — even better. It’s simply great PR. But I hope you’ll forgive my chortles when people think this is all matters of principle.
    I don’t think that’s how business works. When Bill Gates wanted to help the world he set up a foundation. He didn’t use microsoft to feed the poor.

  8. H

    From what I understand, Google was actually doing a decent job of catching up, with over 30% market share, considering it started from scratch and fairly recently so.

  9. SD

    The hacking was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    To say that Google would withdraw from China because it “screwed the pooch” is ridiculous. 35% and rising market share isn’t bad.

    I wonder if the googlers realized that the Chinese gov’t won’t respond well to this.

    Can’t wait for the next volley.