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Google’s Chinese wake-up call

On Monday, Google made good on its promise to stop censorship of its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, by rerouting viewers to its unfettered Hong Kong site. According to the company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, the move was “a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced—it's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China.”

While Google failed to gather any solidarity from other foreign corporations in China, free speech advocates (including CPJ) hailed the move as a rare instance of a corporation putting principles above market share. But now that it’s a done deal, what will the real impact be, both for Google and for the cause of Internet freedom in China? It’s too soon to tell, of course, and we are in fact at the beginning, not the end of the story. But one impact is already clear: Google’s move has helped wake people in China up to the extent to which access to information has been controlled by their government.

Blogger and Internet entrepreneur Isaac Mao estimates that two years ago, only 5 percent of Chinese Internet users knew that the Web they saw was censored. Today, about 20 percent of netizens know the term “scaling the wall,” or utilizing censorship circumvention technologies, and “have a strong determination to do so,” Mao says. The prevalence of news reports about Google in the past two months has only increased those numbers. In an open letter to both Google and the Chinese government asking for more transparency in the process and laws of Internet censorship, a group of Chinese Internet users wrote: “Chinese netizens are increasing not only in number, but progressively in their wits as well. We are clearly conscious of our rights and desire for the global information and human knowledge equally accessed by the netizens from any region in the world.”

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Google has put the government in a tough spot. Authorities have already reacted angrily to Google’s actions, but as of this writing have not yet blocked complete access to the Hong Kong search engine, Gmail, or any of the other Google services that are currently available in China (Some Google sites, such as YouTube and Blogger, were already blocked. Google has set up a page monitoring access to their services in China). Because it is outside the Great Firewall, links to individual search results on the Hong Kong search engine may be inaccessible and some search queries will cause the user’s Web browser to be reset; on Google.cn, those results would not have appeared at all. Millions of people in China who access Google every day will now suddenly see precisely which search results their government does not want them to see. And, chances are, they won’t like it.

On Monday, just after learning that Google had rerouted its site, prominent journalist and blogger Michael Anti tweeted that the move is a “waking-up call for all Chinese netizens: We are not 2nd class. Like all, we deserve an uncensored Internet.” 

Sophie Beach is the executive editor of China Digital Times. See the site’s coverage of Google in China for more on this story.

March 24, 2010 1:54 PM ET |

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