On a politically tough wicket, Google has finally announced that it is going to provide residents in China with uncensored results. Search Results from Google Search, Google News and Google Images are no longer being censored, and users visiting Google.cn are being redirected to the search giants Hong Kong page. This move follows earlier threats by Google to start uncensoring results in China, where it trails market leader Baidu. A report in the official Chinese news agency Xinhua mentions talks with Google on January 29th and Feb 25th, which obviously failed. China just isn’t playing ball…
While Google says that “the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement,” I don’t think one should look at this move merely from a censorship and freedom of speech perspective. Google chose to censor its results keeping in mind its business objectives in China while operating in the country for four years, until January this year. An attack on Google services in January was believed to originate from China, and was used to access accounts of human rights activists connected to China. So the attack helped Google find its conscience?
A translated version of Google’s Hong Kong page:
China is clearly furious. A statement in Xinhua states that “It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value…Google is currently at a crossroad. Whether it eventually leaves the Chinese market or not, one thing is certain — China’s Internet market, which has already been the world’s biggest with nearly 400 million netizens, will continue to prosper…Whether it leaves or not, the Chinese government will keep its Internet regulation principles unchanged. One company’s ambition to change China’s Internet rules and legal system will only prove to be ridiculous.”
Look at it from another perspective: typically, uncensored results should attract more usage than censored ones, and since competitor Baidu will continue to serve censored results, and Google offers a significant differentiation. The onus is on China to block Google Search entirely, a move that it might not risk, since it will attract worldwide condemnation for China. Note that Google intends to maintain a sales presence there, while serving search results in China through Google.com.hk. If China doesn’t block Google, Google’s search marketshare in China might actually increase. It all depends on whether the Chinese people show a preference for uncensored search results.