Google killed its Chinese search engine on Monday and diverted Chinese users to its existing Hong Kong servers, offering uncensored global Web searches. Is it the terminal move of the saga? No. More developments continue.
Google, commenting on the situation yesterday, noted that the bait-and-switch-esque solution is actually legal within existing Chinese regulations, and it hoped that the Chinese authorities would leave the situation at rest—with the rider that the Chinese government could, of course, act to block google.hk at any time. It now looks like that's beginning to happen. According to The New York Times, mainland Chinese netizens trying to access the Hong Kong Google site were either being blocked, or were finding "objectionable" content (under the Chinese regulations) sifted out of the results by government filters.
But what's actually going on? Here's a list of facts, thoughts and opinions on the matter from around the Net:
- Google's original .cn servers were sited on mainland China, and fell subject to the Internet Content Provider licensing scheme that required them to filter results to comply with censorship.
- The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region lies outside of the legal umbrella that covers the rest of the country, and as such has much freer laws—this loophole allowed Google's site-switch trick.
- The Great Firewall of China doesn't envelop Hong Kong, meaning its citizens can access the same Google as the rest of us.
- The Great Firewall does, however, separate Hong Kong from greater China, and it's this legal barrier that the authorities are now using to justify the constriction of Google Hong Kong when accessed inside the country.
- Amazingly some of Google's services are still working completely unhampered inside China: Chief among these is Gmail. The government is obviously concerned about the financial implications for rapidly disconnecting this service to the nations business users.
- The Atlantic notes that the Chinese powers were probably anticipating Google's move long before it occurred, and were ready to start censoring the site if it attempted to use a loophole like Hong Kong. But it also notes that the Chinese authorities are applying the same censorship to Google.de and Google Taiwan—which implies it's actually clamping down more firmly on Google than it had been before.
- The Chinese government maintains it's acting legally (which the even the casual observer will find funny—the government, of course, decides the laws.) The authorities spoke with Google directly as recently as February 25.
- Tencent, an existing service, and China's largest online chat facility, is rumored to be ready to sweep into the void left by Google. But it's Baidu, the country's largest (and censorship compliant) Web site that stands to benefit the most, if Google's Hong Kong trick falls to government censorship.
- The AP reports that some Chinese, no doubt mourning the loss of a potential ally in the quest for freedom of speech, laid flowers and chocolates on the metal Google sign outside its Chinese offices.
- The New York Times spoke to a "Western official" under condition of anonymity, who noted the Chinese government now speaks of its right to censor and control the Net as sovereign "core interest," meaning it will not move a single inch on the matter.
- According to the Telegraph, the fiasco has already had one benefit: A significant number of Chinese citizens were not aware of Net censorship like this until Google made the matter an international issue.
- Google's already using the affair as a political lever in its discussions with the Australian government, which is due to bring in a sweeping and draconian set of Net regulations soon. Posturing in the shadow of the Chinese events, Google notes Australia's plans go "well beyond" laws being mulled in other nations, and that they risk damaging Australia's public image as a free country. It also worries that Australian censorship would confer legitimacy on the concept when it's being considered by other Western nations.
In summary, it seems that Google called the Chinese authorities bluff, and attempted a work around. The government was expecting this, and is already censoring the work-around Hong Kong solution. Google loses out as a result, and the Chinese netizens do too—but the Chinese government has also again been exposed as something of a monster in international eyes, which is an important thing to remember. And the fiasco may have elevated awareness of censorship within China itself. This is unlikely to be the last we hear on the matter, however.
To keep up with this news, uncensored if you're outside China, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.