The last in a long battle between the industry giant and the Chinese government.
Google shut down its search service in the Chinese mainland last night after a two-month standoff with Beijing over online freedom and an alleged intrusion by hackers.
But Chinese authorities attacked the internet giant as “totally wrong” for its decision to shift its Chinese-language offering to Hong Kong.
The move allowed the firm to stop self-censoring the service, although the government’s filtering system would still prevent mainland users from seeing the results of many sensitive searches.
The furore highlighted the challenges of doing business in China for western companies and drew a line under the era of unfettered optimism about the internet’s ability to change the country.
The company now believes it has found a legal way out, and said it intended to maintain its research, development and advertising sales business in China – which has the world’s largest internet population, of almost 400 million.
But it acknowledged that authorities could block the Chinese search service.
An unnamed official at the State Council Information Office – one of the bodies overseeing internet controls – said Google was “totally wrong” and had “violated its written promise” in remarks carried by the official news agency Xinhua. The swift response was highly unusual given that news of the decision broke in the middle of the night in China.
Google.cn now redirects visitors to google.com.hk – where they are greeted by a message reading: “Welcome to Google search in China’s new home.”
But the Chinese government’s internet filtering system, “the Great Firewall”, prevented results being returned when searches were conducted using sensitive words and phrases such as “Tiananmen Square 1989” on google.com.hk. The internet connection was reset.
Although Hong Kong is part of China, the “one country, two systems” framework means it operates under different laws. Google already had a search service there using the territory’s traditional characters, but has added a simplified Chinese service for mainland users.
“We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we’ve faced,” said the company’s chief legal officer, David Drummond.
“We hope the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are aware that it could at any time block access.”
Acknowledging concerns about the repercussions of angering authorities, Drummond added that all the decisions had been “driven and implemented by our executives in the United States, and…none of our employees in China can, or should, be held responsible for them.”
Rebecca MacKinnon, visiting fellow at Princeton’s Centre for Information Technology Policy, said: “It appears they are not doing anything that violates Chinese law … What they are doing in Hong Kong is in bounds of the law there.”
But Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley predicted that Google would find it hard to continue doing business in China.
On Twitter, prominent blogger Michael Anti described Google’s move as a wake-up call for Chinese internet users, adding: “We are not 2nd class. Like all, we deserve an uncensored Internet.”
Google said in January that its decision to stop censoring followed a cyber-attack, originating from China, that it believed was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists as well as intellectual property. Its statement also cited growing internet censorship.
Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, told the New York Times that he believed efforts by governments such as China to control online speech were likely to fail, adding: “I think that in the long-term, they are going to have to open.
Any thoughts on this move by Google?
– Jessie W.