After Google's surprising move to un-censor its Chinese search engine yesterday, the issue has literally exploded all over the news. But it now looks like China will end up forcing Google to close Google.cn, as suspected. And that might be bad for Android.
Whatever you think really motivated Google into this action (I suspect it's a bit more of a PR spin and financial decision than many might assume) it seems to have resulted in a bizarre nose-to-nose stand off between two stubborn giants: The mighty global search company and the Chinese government. As fascinating as this stand-off is, it's not a battle between equals, and the ultimate power lies with the tough inwards-looking officials in Beijing.
And though details are sparse it's beginning to look like Google is going to lose the fight. Speaking to the press yesterday, China's director of the State Council Information Office—an entity within the chief administrative body of the country—Wang Chen made one of those stereotypical enigmatic statements: "Effective guidance of public opinion on the Internet is an important way of protecting the security of online information." And though the absolute content of the message is practically null (it's the political equivalent of saying "walking in a straight line down the street is an important way of getting from A to B") it carries explicit overtones that China deems its censorship as a completely valid social mechanism, and that Google's not going to change that position.
Since China's government is maintaining its position that the censorship is legal (noting other Internet firms must work "in accordance with the law"), and Google has openly promised to violate these laws, it looks like there's going to be just one simple conclusion: Google.cn will be shut own at some point in the next few weeks (possibly even very swiftly). That may indeed have been Google's intention all along, and it'll leave the state-sponsored (and censorship-happy) Baidu search system free to mop up the remaining market share.
What are the repercussions? Well, as I suggested it might be a move that actually worsens human rights in the country—especially since it seems no other big western companies are chosing to make equally bold moves of their own. And that's despite what now seems to be a widespread attempt by persons within China to hack into or otherwise attack an increasing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe. Though Google's looking like it's going to have to pack up its China efforts, everyone else would seem to be making enough money to make sustaining Chinese operations a sensible tactic. By doing so, these company's are gently, but definitely, complicit in supporting the continuing denial of free speech inside China. And though the morals of this will be debated endlessly, the instant impression one gets is that this is a bad thing.
Meanwhile there may be one very unexpected techno casualty of a Google China shut down: Android OS. Android has seemed to be making headway in the country, with devices like Lenovo's OPhone, the HTC Magic, and Dell's Mini 3 device on sale. But if Google pulls out, it might hurt how well future Android devices do: Though the OS is effectively an open and free platform, Google's support is essential to pushing its development in the future—and why would Google push next-gen high-tech Android phones like the Nexus One in China if it's so opposed to the way China's government forces it to run its business? The move could even result in a further splintering of Android into China and everywhere-else versions. Would this move then shine more of a spotlight on Apple...which recently introduced a special China-friendly version of the iPhone a, is happy to comply with Chinese restrictions, and has numerous business interests in the country? It's extremely difficult to tell, but it would seem more likely than not.