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Google's China Decision Could Have Far-Reaching Implications

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It has now been four years since Google announced its intent to censor search results in China. In January of 2006, after finding Google.com to be down about 10% of the time, Google made the now infamous decision to start up Google.cn while complying with Chinese laws. In an announcement on the Official Google Blog dated January 27, 2006, the company stated:

This problem could only be resolved by creating a local presence, and this week we did so, by launching Google.cn, our website for the People's Republic of China. In order to do so, we have agreed to remove certain sensitive information from our search results. We know that many people are upset about this decision, and frankly, we understand their point of view. This wasn't an easy choice, but in the end, we believe the course of action we've chosen will prove to be the right one.

Since that time, the OpenNet Initiative has been watching with keen interest. Two days before Google's official announcement, we explained in a blog post how the filtering would work. Shortly thereafter, University of Toronto researcher Nart Villeneuve created a search comparison to show the difference in results between Google.com and Google.cn.

Four years later, it appears that Google is ending the Google.cn experiment. On the Google blog yesterday, David Drummond, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer stated:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

The decision came following attacks on Google's corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google (note Nart Villeneuve's blog post on the subject).

Although Google's decision is commendable, it is unlikely to have any major implications on China's extensive filtering practices. Although Green Dam demonstrated that China is somewhat receptive to criticism, the implications of filtering search results are not the same as filtering sites: A user searching on Google.cn may be able to see a site in search results, but that does not mean that he can access the site itself. So while there is potential for China to accept Google's decision and allow Google.cn to remain, were that to happen the only real result would be that Chinese users would have a more transparent view of filtering.

The short-term financial impact on Google itself is likely minimal. Their market share in China is relatively low, and as several prominent actors in the field, including Rebecca MacKinnon and Jonathan Zittrain have noted, this frees Google up for further work in the area of circumvention technology.

Ultimately, Google's decision is likely to have the biggest impact on China's 360,000,000 Internet users, who thus far appear to have mixed feelings about the decision--as this Wall Street Journal article depicts, some users have placed flowers outside Google's China headquarters in Beijing, while others seem skeptical that Google will follow through. Still others are angry, as evidenced by this blog started up in the past 24 hours that roughly translates to "Give me back my Google!" Google's original rationale for creating Google.cn was to provide for Chinese users; though the decision was met widely with criticism, according to one source, Google's market share in China was at 35.6% in the last quarter of 2009 (Chinese company Baidu held 58.4%). Another likely result is increased pressure within the US on Bing and Yahoo! to back away from filtering within China.

There is additional potential impact on US-China relations. Atlantic writer James Fallows noted last night that, "There are [also] reasons to think that a difficult and unpleasant stage of China-U.S. and China-world relations lies ahead," citing numerous recent events--such as the debate over China's role in Copenhagen and the prosecution of Liu Xiaobo--that are all results of direct or indirect actions of the Chinese government. The implication, of course, is that the decision of a major U.S. company to pull out of China could lead to a chain of events that results in significantly colder relations between the two countries.

This will likely add additional fuel to the calls for more national attention to be paid to cybersecurity. In Google's blog post of yesterday, it was noted that the aforementioned attacks were not leveraged only at Google, but rather, at least twenty other companies were targeted, as were the accounts of human rights activists based both inside and outside of China. The possibility that the Chinese government is complicit in attempts to hack into US computers to track human rights activists is noteworthy. The fact is that we'll probably never know the facts, nor do we know the limits of US government activity to collect information on those that are seen as a threat. While none of this is particularly new, it is a reminder of the immense challenges that lay ahead for promoting a free and open Internet.

This post originally appeared on the OpenNet Initiative blog.

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