Beginning today, Google is no longer censoring results on its Chinese search engine, the company has announced. But rather than the expected “pullout” from China, Google hopes to continue operating within the country. It all comes down to whether the Chinese government decides operating off a Hong Kong domain — rather than the main Chinese domain — lets Google get around its censorship rules.
Google Finally Acts
In January, Google announced that it would no longer censor its search results, in the wake of an attack on its business infrastructure. Google never blamed the Chinese government directly for the attack, but it was widely believed that the company felt the Chinese government was either involved directly or sanctioned the attacks.
Since then, it has been a watch-and-see situation. Google also said it wanted to talk with the Chinese government to see if it could continue operating — without censoring — within China. We’ve had rumors of talks, and lack of talks, but no real action until today’s news.
Specifically, Google said that it is no longer censoring on its search services — Google Search, Google News China & Google Images — that were aimed at people in China. In reality, those services have actually been closed. If you try to reach them, you get redirected to a new domain. From the blog post:
So earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—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. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from Google.com.hk.
Confusing? It sure is. Here’s the situation, as I understand it.
What A Difference A Domain Name (May) Make
Back in January 2006, Google obtained the Google.cn domain name along with a license to do business in China. The .CN domain is directly controlled by the Chinese government, as opposed to other domains such as .COM, which while used by many American companies is not adminstered by the US government.
Part of that license required Google to obey Chinese laws, including the self-censorship of search results. Google doesn’t actually get told by the Chinese government about what to censor. Instead, it has to guess.
Now Google no longer wants to censor results. But it wants to still provide a search engine designed for those who live in China. What to do? Make everyone in China go to a different domain, Google.com.hk. The .HK domain is administered by Hong Kong.
Wait — isn’t Hong Kong part of China, and so subject to Chinese law? Yes and no. Hong Kong has a great deal of autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Hong Kong can rule itself in many ways through 2047.
Unclear If End Run Will Work
By moving to a Hong Kong domain — which is run under Hong Kong law — Google seems to believe that it can do an end-run around Chinese censorship requirements. Google has run a Chinese-aimed uncensored search service on that domain for several years without being blocked. Now it believes it can send everyone in China to that domain and meet Chinese law:
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—it’s entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services.
I’ve bolded two key points. First, that Google states what it is doing is entirely legal. Second, that it clearly doesn’t know if this is entirely legal, as it has “hope” the Chinese government “respects” the move. If it’s entirely legal, then Google shouldn’t need to be hoping.
As a sidenote, Google.com.hk has long used the “traditional” version of the Chinese alphabet. You’ll see that, if you go to it directly. But if you go to Google.cn — which used the “simplied” version of the Chinese alphabet — you’ll get redirected to Google.com.hk with the simplified characters switched on by default. None of this is related to the core censorship issue.
Other Countries Pretend Laws Only Apply To “Their” Domains
We’ll see if the Chinese government decides to play along. Other governments have been happy to maintain a fiction that meeting some legal requirement on a country-specific domain somehow means everyone in their countries are protected by their laws, even though that’s not the case.
Huh? Well, Germany has laws that require censorship of Nazi information. Google complies by censoring on the German Google.de version of its web site, and everyone’s happy — despite the fact that millions of Germans each year will go to the uncensored Google.com domain.
Similarly, Google has followed legal decisions handed down over trademarks and ads in France on its Google.fr French version of its web site and yet ignored these on its main site. And when a Belgian court ordered that Google remove some Belgium newspapers from its search engine, Google did this for its Belgian site, to my recollection, despite the fact that plenty in Belgium go to Google.com.
Round Two: Waiting On The Chinese Government
The Chinese government might decide that Google is following the rules, since the rules might be different for sites on a .HK domain. If so, then Google gets pretty much all the advantages of still being in China without the downside of having to censor — though there might be some issues in terms of how it can sell ads (yes, Google.co.hk has them too). If the Chinese government disagrees, Google might find the .HK domain gets partially blocked as already happens to the uncensored results on Google.com. Or worse, more severe blocking might be put into place.
Want to keep up? Google’s created a new page that lists all of its services that are blocked or partially blocked by the Chinese authorities.
Beyond that, the Chinese government might decide that Google cannot continue its other non-search related activities within the country. From Google’s blog post, Google lists some of its other operations it hopes to maintain:
We intend to continue R&D work in China and also to maintain a sales presence there, though the size of the sales team will obviously be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access Google.com.hk.
In many ways, we’re back to wait-and-see.
For related news, see Techmeme.
Postscript (2:20 PT): I’ve gone through some of the other coverage on Techmeme now. Some highlights:
- The Guardian points to the China Channel Firefox plugin that promises to let anyone experience Chinese blocking. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work for Firefox versions 3.5 and higher.
- The Wall Street Journal has a short piece noting that while some analysts see pulling out of Google “suicidal,” most think it will have little impact. Seriously, suicidal? Maybe for its business in China but not for the company, which is by far the top search engine in countries around the world but in global search share. My Google Just Says No To China: Ending Censorship, Due To Gmail Attack article gets into dulling some of the business freak-out a bit more.
- Today’s New York Times article also has information that Chinese revenues have little impact on Google and details on how most of its current Chinese revenue comes from ads placed in China to run in the US.
- News.com has a bit more about the autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys.
Postscript 2 (2:45 PT):
The New York Times has a short interview with Google cofounder Sergey Brin who makes clear that the Hong Kong option was discussed with Chinese authorities but that there was no official approval given and that:
There’s a lot of lack of clarity. Our hope is that the newly begun Hong Kong service will continue to be available in mainland China.
Postscript 3 (3:05 PT):
The LA Times notes that uncensored results don’t mean that you get unfettered access to information. The Chinese government-run firewall will still prevent people from reaching sites that are deemed verboten. This isn’t a new issue that just started today. It’s long been in effect. In fact, it’s one reason Google argued back in 2006 that it made sense to censor. Users couldn’t get to many of the uncensored sites it listed anyway.