On Monday, March 22nd 2010, Google announced its plan to end the controversial censorship of their search engine in China (Google.cn), which has been ongoing since the Google-China agreement in January 2006. This announcement comes on the heels of several December 2009 hacking incidents which reportedly originated in China and targeted the Gmail accounts of many human rights activists. Chinese officials claim Google’s revocation of their agreement is a breach of the 2006 contract which stipulated censorship was a non-negotiable legal requirement to Google’s operations in that country. Google, with its “don’t be evil” mantra, has faced opposition to its 2006 decision and now comes under some fire for violating their contract while intending to remain in China on their own terms: they have now routed their Chinese mainland traffic to their “uncensored” version in Hong Kong (Google.hk), which, as a former British colony, is now a special administrative region and enjoys unfiltered internet access and other liberties. It is unknown how long and how much of these search results will get past the “Great (fire)Wall” of Beijing.
To give a little more background, in January of 2006, Google entered into a hotly-contested agreement with the Chinese government to offer censored search results to Chinese internet users via Google.cn. As China offers the largest internet market of 250 million users, Google claimed they were doing the most good by having a limited presence there and believed they would eventually help usher in a new era of unfiltered internet access to the communist country (see Google’s January 2006 Blog). This contract was violated by Google following a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on Google and several individuals in mid-December 2009 (see CNN), which originated in China and involved 20 or more instances of hacking into the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.
Although Google is only used by 13% of Chinese internet users (whereas 77% of users access the web via the government-friendly engine, baidu.com), according to surveys, it claims its presence is important. Perhaps this statement is from a business and revenue-generating perspective. However, I typed the phrase “Tiananmen Square massacre” into Google and received over 1.3 million results. I then typed that phrase into Baidu.com (which looks remarkably like Google, by the way) and received three results, none of which held any real information about the massacre itself. Although Google.cn was censored for three years, it is unclear if any more of those relevant results came through. Now, if you were to go to Google.cn, which redirects to Google.hk, you will see over 1.3 million results for “Tiananmen Square massacre”. Interesting.
At this time, you can visit Google’s Mainland China Service Availability page to see up-to-date availability for Chinese users. Google is aware Beijing can block Google’s access at any time, as they currently block YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and various blog sites. It is likely China is weighing its options, as Google’s decision has further enhanced their poor international image, although the Chinese government is unlikely to cave into pressure based on the contract violations of an American company.
Google, on the other hand, is attempting to put pressure on Microsoft for still offering a censored, albeit, extremely limited presence in China (see Danny Sullivan’s Blog). While most would agree Google has no business taking that position at this point, we are still watching to see whether or not the search engine will renegotiate its stance on China, especially in light of the potential for internet revenue and sale of Google phones to Chinese technophiles (see AOL News). It is also speculated China will take their own stand against foreign search engines in favor of a “regional” internet, which may in turn spark a similar move by other dictatorial countries such as Iran and Venezuela, a move that would be very interesting for SEO agencies and advertisers.
Contributed by Amanda Finch, VP Operations