A Free Ride Down The Information Superhighway?


At 3am Tuesday Beijing time, Google’s Chief Legal Officer David Drummond announced that the company would stop censoring its results on Google.cn.

"Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong."

Citing concerns about cyber attacks, the hacking of Chinese dissidents’ email accounts, and the blocking of sites like Youtube, Facebook and Twitter, Google was apparently making a stand for internet freedom.

By breakfast time, China’s State Council Information Office had issued a predictable response.

"Google has violated the written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks," an unnamed official was quoted [in Chinese]as saying.

Meanwhile, VPNs were firing up across the country as China’s twitterati discussed the news.

Many felt that the Hong Kong redirect was better than Google completely withdrawing from China — an act which could further isolate Chinese netizens. "Google isn’t leaving, so everyday we can still see beyond the firewall," Junker52 wrote. "Today Google removed itself from the ‘evil’ law," wrote artist Ai Weiwei.

There were jibes made at those who are paid to "harmonise" domestic message boards in line with the Government’s viewpoint. "The ’50 cents party’ will have to work overtime today to guide public opinion on Google’s withdrawal, to point out that the ‘illegal’ search engine does not have the support of the people bla bla …," posted Zuola.

For some, it was a reminder of the importance of maintaining freedoms — including an open internet — which Hong Kong still enjoys under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model. "For HKers like myself, Google’s move shows how valuable HK’s autonomy is. We must not budge, not an inch," wrote Heicailiao.

In an interview for the New York Times, Google co-founder Sergey Brin suggested that the redirect to Google.com.hk was the outcome of negotiations with the Chinese Government. While not given clear-cut approval, Brin said "there was a sense that Hong Kong was the right step."

"Our hope is that the newly begun Hong Kong service will continue to be available in mainland China," he said.

In his blog announcement, Google’s David Drummond even went as far as saying that the move would "meaningfully increase access to information for people in China" and that Google would be monitoring this.

But by early Tuesday morning the rhetoric was already falling flat as people jumped online and discovered that, for your average non-VPN/proxy savvy Chinese internet user, nothing had changed.

Despite the redirect to Hong Kong, searching for sensitive terms using simplified Mandarin and English still brought up a "Connection was reset" page, meaning the site was blocked. Apparently, this is the result of network filtering, something that happens automatically as part of China’s firewall internet filtering system. None of this was apparent on Google’s new Mainland China service availability page.

It’s worth remembering at this point that China is a country that is still denying pretty much any useful internet access to 20 million people in its western Xinjiang region. The Chinese Government is a master of information control and despite its expressed "discontent and indignation" at Google’s move, it’s probably not worried about users being redirected to another site which ultimately offers the same censored information as the first.

That’s not to say that it won’t have a retaliatory freak out and block Google.com.hk altogether, but as internet researcher, Rebecca MacKinnon, points out, it would do this at the risk of drawing more domestic attention to the issue. What many outsiders tend to forget is that a lot of people in China don’t even think about internet censorship, or about the kinds of sensitive sites (apart from porn) that await them on the other side of the "great firewall". MacKinnon writes:

"As I like to explain it: if you’re born with tunnel vision you assume it’s normal until somehow you’re made aware that life without tunnel vision is both possible and much better. The longer this story remains in the headlines, the more people will become conscious of their tunnel vision and think about ways to eliminate it."

In a BBC interview, one of China’s first bloggers and internet entrepreneurs, Isaac Mao, said that two years ago "only 5 per cent of Chinese internet users knew that the Government censored the internet". But as a result of information spreading online, about 20 per cent of users are now looking for ways to "fan qiang", or, get over the firewall. This is something that the Government will probably be factoring in to its thinking about its next move with Google.

In fact, unless the Government has the aforementioned freak out, it could wind up as a win-win situation for both sides.

The Chinese Government doesn’t have to deal with "censorship-free" Google breaking the law within its jurisdiction, and it can also feel happy that Google searches on the mainland are still being censored.

Google meanwhile has said it will continue with its other business operations in China, including research and development and ad sales. So, as the company laps up praise for refusing to bow down to government censorship, it also continues to reap benefits from the world’s biggest internet market.

Well, perhaps that’s a little cynical. In the New York Times yesterday, Sergey Brin said that Google’s long-term goal is a more open internet in China, and that it is only a matter of time before China’s internet heads that way.

But, as people feed paper into fax machines in Xinjiang because they can’t access email, it’s hard to imagine how and when that will actually happen. And just how far will Google go to promote its vision of openness? Of course, no-one expects it to rally to the support of the unconnected masses in Xinjiang, but will it proactively help mainland users who encounter access issues with Google.com.hk? Or will it claim that, so long as it’s not censoring anymore, its bit is done?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.