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[UPDATE] Google redirects, China retaliates

23 Mar 2010

The decision by Google to move some of its Chinese searchservices to Hong Kong may have kept its promise that searches on Google.cnwould no longer be censored – but it could still raise hackles in Beijing.

Google has announced that searches at Google Search, GoogleNews, and Google Images on Google.cn will be redirected to Google.com.hk, whichis not subject to control by Chinese authorities. The move follows a bitterdispute in which Google threatened to end its operations in China, rather thansubmit to Chinese demands that it censor certain search requests on topicsregarded as sensitive, such as human rights.

China’s government insisted that Google must comply withChinese law; Google was concerned that hackers allegedly connected to theChinese government had carried out attacks on Google’s servers, and those ofother US companies.

“Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stopcensoring search on Google.cn has been hard,” said David Drummond, Google’s SVP,Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer. “We want as many people in theworld as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainlandChina, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussionsthat self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement.

“We believe this new approach of providing uncensored searchin simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to thechallenges we've faced – it's entirely legal and will meaningfully increaseaccess to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinesegovernment respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at anytime block access to our services.

“In terms of Google's wider business operations, we intendto continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there,though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on theability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk. Finally, we wouldlike to make clear that all these decisions have been driven and implemented byour executives in the United States, and that none of our employees in Chinacan, or should, be held responsible for them.”

What remains to be seen is how Beijing will react to the ‘offshoring’of free searching in a territory over which it holds sovereignty. While HongKong enjoys freedoms not permitted in mainland China, its rulers are very muchunder Beijing’s control, and may feel pressure to impose controls in keepingwith its views. Google is maintaining a Web page that displays which elementsof its services are blocked in China.

Human Rights Watch praised the move as “a strong step in favourof freedom of expression and information, and an indictment of the Chinesegovernment's insistence on censorship of the internet”.

“China is one of the world's largest economies, buthundreds of millions of Chinese internet users are denied the basic access toinformation that people around the world take for granted,” said ArvindGanesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Google's decision to offer an uncensored search engine is an importantstep to challenge the Chinese government's use of censorship to maintain itscontrol over its citizens.”

Human Rights Watch called on other companies to followGoogle's example and end all their censorship of politically sensitiveinformation.

“This is a crucial moment for freedom of expression inChina, and the onus is now on other major technology companies to take a firmstand against censorship,” said Ganesan. “But the Chinese governmentshould also realise that its repression only isolates its internet users fromthe rest of the world – and the long-term harm of isolation far outweighs theshort-term benefit of forcing companies to leave.”

[UPDATE]

As expected, less than a day after Google redirected its Chinese search engine, authorities have now begun blocking selected sites on Google.com.hk.

It’s reported that websites dealing with issues considered ‘sensitive’ by the Chinese government, such as pornographic sites and those relating to the Tiananmen Square massacre, are not appearing on computers attempting to access them from mainland China.

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