Ending two months of speculation, Google has come forward with its plans for dealing with Internet filtering requirements in China, announcing that visitors to Google.cn will now be redirected to the Hong Kong version of the search engine, which will deliver uncensored results in “simplified Chinese.”
Google is now redirecting visitors to the Chinese search engine to Google.hk, so servers housed outside the country will provide an unfiltered version of the Web to mainland China in an arrangement that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is arguing adheres to the letter of Chinese Internet law, if not the spirit.
“Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, said in a blog post. “We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement.”
Drummond called the automatic redirect of Google.cn a “sensible solution” to the company’s tense standoff with China, which began in January when it threatened to shutter its operations in the country if the government didn’t relax its filtering requirements. At the same time, Google went public with revelations about a coordinated wave of cyber attacks targeting dissident Chinese Gmail users and others.
Google plans to maintain its research and development and sales operations in China, though Drummond said that could change if Chinese authorities block access to Google.hk.
“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,” he said.
Google has set up a dashboard that it will update daily with information about access to its services in China. As of this writing, YouTube, Blogger and Google Sites were listed as completely blocked. Google’s Docs, Groups and Picasa were listed as partially blocked.
The company cautioned that the servers powering the Google.hk site could be overwhelmed by the sudden surge of traffic from the redirect, warning that some services could be down or run more slowly than normal until it completes the transition.
In the weeks leading up to today’s announcement, Chinese state-run media outlets have turned up the rhetoric against the search firm, publishing a wave of stories downplaying the impact of the company’s threat to close its operations in the country.
In an article that carried the headline “Indifference, Uncertainty Cloud Google’s China Threat,” the news agency Xinhua reported results of a survey finding that 84 percent of respondents selected the “don’t care” option when asked about Google’s suggestion that it might pull out of China.
Until today, Google had remained largely silent on the issue. One of the company’s top lawyers has testified at two congressional hearings on the matter, but declined to discuss negotiations with the Chinese government or offer a timetable for a decision on whether to exit the country. Google Public Policy Director Alan Davidson is scheduled to testify before the Congressional-Executive Committee on China on Wednesday.
China’s state media outlets offered little hope that the government would be willing to bend its policies to accommodate Google, firmly defending the country’s system of Internet regulation.
“China’s top leaders have a constant policy that stresses opening up to the world,” an unsigned commentary in Xinhua read. “But Google has challenged the Chinese government’s sovereignty by demanding the government accept Google’s presumed definition on ‘opening up.’ China has always been in a developing mode that shows no signs of stopping.”
The news agency has asserted that Chinese Internet users will have no problem switching to Baidu, which is already the country’s leading search engine, if Google.cn is shut down.
But the incident has escalated far beyond a business dispute between an American company and a foreign government, with senior U.S. officials and lawmakers blasting Internet censorship and appealing to other tech companies to follow Google’s example and adopt a firmer resistance to countries with restrictive Internet policies.
That posturing has drawn a caustic response in the Chinese state media, which has accused the United States of a double standard on the issue, and recently has described Google as acting as an extension of the U.S. government in a political ploy.
“As the situation evolved, it was getting clearer that Google was backed by U.S. government and politicians who intended to politicize the economic incident and attack China,” read an editorial published today in China Daily. “While U.S. government increased its pressure on China, a national outrage against U.S.’s finger-pointing spread across China, which backs the government to firmly hold its stance against Google and the U.S. government and any politicians behind it.”
“Google has made a bad bet against the Chinese government and its netizens,” the editorial concluded. “If Google is not willing to comply with Chinese rules, leaving China is the best choice.”
Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.