The issue of internet censorship to mainland China took the next logical step today. Google has officially announced that they have stopped censoring results to their google.cn web search portal as well as other services. What is interesting is how Google is essentially side stepping this issue. Instead of simply killing its services, it has redirected all queries to its Hong Kong portal Google.com.hk.
This will create an interesting issue for Chinese regulators. Hong Kong is NOT technically part of mainland China. It is one of two “special administrative regions”, that essentially have different governance structures and legislation. Google admits it is side stepping the legal issue by doing this, as while they are still hosting simplified Chinese search results, they are doing so outside of mainland China. For Chinese regulators, this highlights an issue that many mainland Chinese may not be aware, the extended freedoms associated with living in Hong Kong. China knows that it needs to tread lightly on this issue or it will create further dissent internally, yet at the same time it needs to deal with this issue concretely.
Google is obviously treading lightly as well. By simply redirecting to their Hong Kong portal, they are essentially side stepping the issue and allowing the Chinese regulators an out. Think of this as game of moving an egg between two elephants trapped in an elevator. Neither side can afford to break the egg, yet neither side has a lot of maneuvering room.
For China the issue of censorship is one of domestic control. There is a lot that is both good and bad in the Chinese stance. The Chinese government needs to appear open to the rest of the world, while it slowly changes local cultures and deals with the stuff best left under the carpet from past regimes. Over time I think the balance will continue to move towards a more open regime and country. And that is a good thing for all Chinese citizens. We need to be careful and remember the fact that less than 30 years ago China was almost completely closed to the West and our ideals. This is radical change that is occurring and the government of China is moving its populace forward, albeit at a pace that many may feel is too slow.
For Google the issue is one of corporate identity and global optics as well. Google is trying to maintain its stance of openness and “doing no harm”. If Google were perceived as soft on privacy, it stands to loose 100s of millions of e-mail, search and Google Docs users. Would you leave your personal information with a company you felt you couldn’t trust? By taking a stand on personal information confidentiality and thus refusing the participate in filtering search and content results as required by the Chinese government, Google is essentially locking itself out of the Chinese market. Any sane corporation won’t do that unless it has something more than the largest developing market to lose, i.e. the rest of the world.
Much like the cold war Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) stance between the US and Russia, this is a battle that is being fought far from the front lines. Ultimately it will be settled and the original reasons for the fight will be long forgotten except by the few who were directly involved.
Rebecca MacKinnon has one of the best non-hype discussions on the topic that I’ve run into.