Google to China: Your Move

Google to China: Your move

Posted by John Murrell on March 23rd, 2010 at 7:11 am

Well played, Google, or in pool table terms, nice leave. From the start, the Google-China stare-down held no hope of compromise (see “Outlook for Google’s China talks: nasty, brutish and short“), so the question became which side would succeed in framing the conflict and its consequences: Google, with its focus on censorship, or China, maintaining that all businesses are obliged to follow local laws.

Monday, by simply redirecting to its unfiltered Hong Kong servers, Google pulled off an elegant combination shot:

* It followed through on its pledge to stop delivering a censored search service to China.

* It made China’s local-laws argument moot by moving the service to a different jurisdiction.

* It left the Chinese government to take direct responsibility for further censorship.

* It provided an avenue to keep its traffic from within China flowing.

* It avoided the perception of having abandoned China by continuing to offer search and by retaining its other business operations in the country.

The people of China still won’t see the same Internet as the rest of us. The searches they run through will display uncensored results, but the Great Firewall will still block users from clicking through to sites the authorities don’t want them to see. But at least it will be clearer to Chinese users what is being kept from them and who is doing the censoring.

As Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the New York Times, however, “The story’s not over yet.” China may yet cut off or otherwise restrict access to the Hong Kong servers or take other steps that would interfere with Google’s businesses. In 2½ months of negotiations, Brin said, the company never could get a straight answer from China as to whether the Hong Kong redirection was an acceptable option. “There was a sense that Hong Kong was the right step,” he said. “There’s a lot of lack of clarity. Our hope is that the newly begun Hong Kong service will continue to be available in mainland China.” And just so the world can see what the Chinese authorities are up to, Google has posted a page with a daily scorecard showing which of its services are open, blocked or partially blocked for mainland users.

Meanwhile, China’s official reaction bounced between anger and efforts to downplay the significance of the dispute. “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,” said an official with the State Council Information Office. “This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.” At the Foreign Ministry, spokesman Qin Gang said, “I cannot see an impact on China-US relations unless someone wants to politicize that. I cannot see any impact on China’s international image unless someone wants to make an issue of it. It is not China who has undermined its image, it is Google.”

That may be the party line, but the fact is that Google, with one simple and efficient stroke, has left China in a position where it has no legal argument to hide behind and, if it’s intent on keeping its citizens in the dark, no choice but to appear as the bad guy in front of one and all.

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