Google's high-stakes confrontation with China's government has entered a new, and uncertain, phase. Making good on its threat to cease censorship of search results on its China-based site, Google.cn, Google has begun redirecting users in China to its uncensored Chinese-language site based in Hong Kong, google.com.hk.
China's censors now face a difficult choice. They could move quickly to block access, within China, to the Hong Kong site. This is not a problem for them technically: China's internet "firewall" routinely blocks access to Google-owned YouTube, Twitter, Wikipedia and many other sites deemed a potential threat to the government's capacity to preempt and contain dissent.
The problem for Chinese authorities, rather, is political. Never before has the government, in its regulation of internet content, cut off access to a website regularly used by so many of its own citizens. Past censorship decisions have involved denying access to websites used only by small numbers of Chinese. The Chinese people, for the most part, have been unaware of what the government does not let them see. (And the few who do know, often belonging to academic and government elites, can maintain their access, using proxy servers and other technical work-arounds.)
This is different. China's internet market is so vast that, even though Google ranks as the country's Number 2 search engine (with a market share of approximately 35 percent), Google users in China number some 140 million. This means that the decision to cut off access to google.com.hk is a decision to tell 140 million citizens that they are no longer trusted to view an information source to which they have had, since 2005, essentially unrestricted access.
Although internet users in China may be vaguely aware that they are permitted to see only a redacted version of the internet, this would be the first time that users, by the millions, will know what it is that the government forbids them to see. And having seen it, many could question the legitimacy of the government's censorship policy. This is the prospect -- unprecedented in modern China -- that must be giving government authorities pause.
My prediction, for what it's worth, is that, because of these considerations, China will decide not to block all access to google.com.hk. Instead, it will choose the less confrontational strategy of slowly crippling Google's Hong Kong-based website.
China will manipulate the firewall to degrade the site's performance. Uncensored search results will be available, but only for Chinese users willing to wait extra seconds compared to Baidu.com and other "domestic" Chinese search engines operating, under censorship, inside the firewall. Under these circumstances, Google's market share in China will decline steadily until the company is no longer a relevant player in the market.
This is China's ultimate leverage over western internet companies trying to do business in China while locating servers for their websites outside the firewall. In degrading the performance of such companies' websites, China assures that the firms cannot be competitive in China -- unless they agree to play by China's rules, chief among them being rules requiring self-censorship.
China's government will be betting that, by gradually undermining Google in this way, it can exclude Google from China without having to contend with 140 million disgruntled Google customers. Here's hoping the censors lose their bet.
Peter Scheer is Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization which has petitioned the federal government to challenge China's internet censorship before the WTO.