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Google versus the Great Wall of Censorship

News & Features | February 26, 2010

Imagine not knowing something. Simple, you think, I’ll google it. For Chinese citizens, this is not as easy as it sounds. What happens when a search engine limits the extent of its searches? What happens if you can’t google? This question might become a harsh reality, as Google has recently threatened to leave China altogether after the Chinese government enforced strict censorship policies and breached privacy agreements between the company and its clients. Though Google was determined to stay in China “for the long haul” four years ago, it has become apparent that the company has yet to form a working compromise with the Chinese government’s strict Internet policies.

The Chinese haven’t been perfect business partners either. According to Google, a Chinese-based program has been hacking into the Gmail accounts of known American human rights activists who have voiced concerns about China’s censorship of Internet searches. This claim has now extended the argument beyond the boundaries of China and Google’s business relationship and into a seemingly endless debate about freedom of speech in China.

Upon first entering China, Google had censored its Chinese branch (Google.cn) in compliance with the country’s strict censorship laws—an act that had spurred rampant criticism from human rights activists. In response, the search engine argued that it would be better to offer China a toned down version of its searching services than nothing at all.. However, many could not so quickly forgive the seeming hypocrisy of Google’s initial self-restrictions that, ironically, proved even too liberal for the rigidity of Chinese policies.

“When they [Google] believed they found out about the hackings, they had to come to the conclusion that if they have any credibility at all, they had to be true to what they profess to be,” Tufts Economics Professor Jack Green said in an interview. “How can you continue to feel like you are an objective news and information gathering source if in fact you are agreeing to be restricted?”

But why did Google try so hard to enter the Chinese market if by imposing restrictions, it weakened the very principles the company stands for? It all comes down to profit. After all, China is home to almost a sixth of the world’s population and, the more people that google, the more profit company earns. Google thought that by entering China, it could seriously compete with Baidu, China’s leading search engine. The results were almost pathetic. Not only did Google fail to knock Baidu out of its top seat, it hardly even managed to gain enough users to send a warning to its competitor.

“It was a very significant start-up business,” said Green. “The size of the Chinese market was impossible to ignore…but trying to maintain the opportunity without compromising their principles? It’s a tough balance.”

As Google slowly realized its shortcomings in China, it refused to say goodbye without leaving its mark. In a gutsy move intended to boost its appeal, the company defied China’s stubborn censorship laws and lifted restrictions on its searches. Google took a big risk, with the potential of an even bigger reward. However, the plan completely backfired; it essentially put the Chinese government on a warpath. Google tried to paint itself as a noble martyr, willing to open up its gates at any price—the number of mourners for its loss, however, may not be that high.

Ironically, considering China’s tradition of limited access, Google’s decision to remove all censorship from its searching operations may now have only expedited the company’s departure. Further fueling this debate and exacerbating negative sentiments was Obama’s candid criticism of controlled Internet searches during his speech in China late last year.  However, there are two questions to consider: if Google leaves, what is in it for the company? And what is in it for China?

China seems to be emerging victorious yet again; the government made it clear that if Internet companies cannot play by the rules, they shouldn’t play the game. Baidu has thus far mastered the ins and outs of restrictive Chinese policy, claiming 64% of all the revenue made by search engines in China and enjoying a positive relationship with the government. But, of course, China won’t suddenly ease up on its restrictions simply because an American Internet search company, whose revenues are almost immaterial, decided to give full access to information. The backlash as a result of Google’s full access policy could even mean even harsher oversight for Baidu and other prosperous search engines in China. If so, they can thank Google.

Although Google has revolutionized how people access information, it must realize its limits in a country that has long been known for its restrictive Internet policies. Because Google was no longer competing in a western political arena, its logic and practices just didn’t hold up. Google might have understood the type of client it was dealing with, but it miscalculated how far it could act within the boundaries of Chinese business.

It is understandable that Google would be frustrated with China’s constant invasion of private Gmail accounts and use of spamming programs; however, its overreaction is “effectively a suicide note,” as one rival company executive commented. From the sight of “mourners” leaving flowers at the Google headquarters, it is obvious that Google will be missed—for how long is dubious. While citizens may yearn for the search engine’s unparalleled ease and accessibility, they can surely do without the tension that same company inspired.

If Google really does want to leave its mark, it should reconsider its censorship policies, pick up on Baidu’s techniques, and try to stay in China. With over a billion citizens, the Chinese market holds vast opportunities for Google to reap revenue and find a definitive following within Chinese borders. Maybe, if it can learn to operate within the parameters of the Chinese government, Google will find its niche. After all, why shouldn’t China enjoy the power and simplicity of a Google search?