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Google Puts Its Foot Down

Rebecca MacKinnon

Google's announcement that it will "review" its business operations in China and is no longer willing to censor its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, is generating a range of reaction in China. Conversation over at the #googlecn hashtag on Twitter — created shortly after the announcement — has been raging fast and furious. The Chinese Twittersphere — comprised exclusively of people who are tech savvy enough to know how to get around censorship or they wouldn't be there — is generally cheering the news. Some need no translation, like this one which says: "Google's Do No Evil vs. CPC's Do No.1 Evil"(CPC means "Communist Party of China"). There's a report that the Tsinghua University security department has announced that students can't take flowers to Google without permission. Another person reports that all the Chinese Internet portals have been told by authorities that they're only allowed to use Xinhua News Agency and People's Daily reports on the subject — they're not allowed to use reports from other sources, and they should not feature today's news about Google on the front pages of their sites. Here is a report on how somebody posted a translation of Google's announcement on the Chinese web portal, Netease, and it was censored. One person suggests that leaving China frees up Google to focus on building the anti-censorship business instead of the censorship business. (UPDATE: China Digital Times is doing a running twitter translation here.)

This is a picture of people laying flowers and making a traditional bow of mourning in front of the Google sign outside Google's Beijing headquarters.

On the other hand, a short Chinese-language report in Sina.com's tech section is generating a long thread of comments from people who are unhappy about Google's announcement because they don't want to lose access to Google. Somebody has set up a website, http://www.googlebacktochina.com/ with a Chinese header that translates approximately as "Give me back my Google." Famous tech blogger Keso mourns that Google's retreat brings the Chinese Internet one step closer to being an Intranet. Sichuan-based dissident Ran Yunfei is also unhappy, likening Google's retreat to a dissident who leaves China compared to one who stays in China and toughs it out.

Another flag-waving constituency is thumbing its nose and saying good riddance.

Google's decision is clearly controversial even among those in China who spend a lot of time fighting censorship, and is devastating to many more who aren't in the habit of using circumvention tools or don't know how.

Google's decision was tough and is going to have a great deal of of difficult fallout. Still, based on what I know, I think Google has done the right thing. They are sending a very public message — which people in China are hearing — that the Chinese government's approach to Internet regulation is unacceptable and poisonous. They are living up to their "don't be evil" motto — much mocked of late — and living up to their commitments to free speech and privacy as a member of the Global Network Initiative.

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online
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Playing the trump card The Famous Brett Watson  –  Jan 13, 2010 8:50 PM PDT

People are jumping a little ahead of the game here: Google hasn't pulled out of China yet. They have thrown down the gauntlet, however, and the safe bet is that China won't back down, but we should still distinguish between what has already happened and what is likely to follow.

What has already happened is this: Google has drawn a line in the sand and said that it is no longer willing to censor search results in China. This shift in policy has been precipitated by the targeted attacks against it (and others) which appear to have been undertaken by the Chinese government, or a party acting in on its behalf.

What's likely to follow is this: the Chinese government refuses to budge on the censorship issue, and denies any involvement in the attacks. Google can then either back down or ship out. I don't think either party is bluffing here, and Google will pull out.

The major benefit of this withdrawal, which seems to have been overlooked in the reporting I've read so far, is that the Chinese government no longer has leverage over Google once it severs ties with China. Google has a fiduciary responsibility to maximise shareholder value, and the Chinese government can use that responsibility as leverage so long as Google conducts business in China. Having decided that the Chinese operation is ethically untenable and severed ties, however, Google is free to do all sorts of things. While the likes of Yahoo! and Microsoft must continue to kowtow to China or lose revenue, Google will be free to pursue technologies and research which irritate the Chinese government no end. They are, for example, in a very good position to publish all sorts of research into human rights related cybercrime, and have already shown an unusual willingness to disclose on the subject even when their own security has been breached. They may also pursue research into censorship circumvention or prevention technologies.

Google's revenue stream from China is the only direct leverage that the Chinese government has over Google. The dilemma that the Chinese government thus faces is whether to back off on the censorship and retain some leverage, or lose the leverage and kick Google out. The latter still seems to be the likely outcome, but either way it's a bold move by Google. Either way, they stand not only to do no evil, but quite possibly do some good.

My only misgiving at this point is that the Chinese government might go looking for a pretext to arrest various Google employees in China so as to retain some leverage. This kind of thing is not entirely without precedent.

The denial is in The Famous Brett Watson  –  Jan 25, 2010 1:28 AM PDT

What's likely to follow is this: the Chinese government refuses to budge on the censorship issue, and denies any involvement in the attacks.

We now have an official statement which is as close to a denial as we are going to get for the time being. The BBC reports that the Chinese government has called the accusations "groundless", which is diplomatic weasel-speak for, "you can't prove we did it."

There is no indication that China will budge on the censorship issue, but don't hold your breath waiting for the next shoe to drop: this game will be long and slow.

Hypocrisy Brett Glass  –  Jan 25, 2010 7:43 PM PDT

What's Google really up to? Google is actively and unapologetically involved in censorship in India, and has in fact deleted entire online discussions from its Orkut social networking system because people were criticizing a government official there. So, Google clearly is not REALLY anti-censorhip. Could it be that Google is not making money in China (it's having its derriere kicked by local competitor Baidu, I'm told), and is using this spat as a pretended reason to pull out? And why hasn't Hillary noted and criticized Google's censorship in India?

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