This morning came news that China has renewed Google’s licence to operate in the country.
That seemed like good news–Google wins the China standoff!–until it was revealed that Google’s China search engine will now effectively be censoring ALL web pages, instead of just the ones that the Chinese government found objectionable.
Specifically, Google’s search engine in China will now consist only of product and music searches (and maybe maps, although, according to China expert Bill Bishop, that involves a different licence that has yet to be renewed). The landing page will also include a link to Google’s Hong Kong site, which includes web pages and which, for now at least, China’s government is allowing Chinese citizens to access.
As long as China users don’t mind clicking the Hong Kong link, and as long as the Chinese government allows mainland Chinese to access the HK site, Google will have achieved a balance that doesn’t render it entirely irrelevant in China. Based on the government’s prior behaviour, however, if the HK site gets major traffic from mainland China, we would not be surprised if the government eliminated Google’s ability to link to it from its China site.
Bottom line, we think Google has come out on the losing end of this negotiation.
Google’s initial stance toward China–do business in the country despite the country’s infantile censorship demands–was a tough decision, but in our opinion it was the right one. Google’s refusing to do business in the world’s largest and fastest growing Internet market might have made some free speech advocates happy, but it would not have helped anyone in China. And it certainly wouldn’t have helped Google’s shareholders.
Google’s more recent decision, meanwhile–to make a huge show of refusing to censor its search results–may go down as one of the worst in the company’s history.
Importantly, it wasn’t Google’s decision to stop censoring that was a bad one. It was the way in which Google handled the decision. By making a big announcement and and redirecting its search engine to Hong Kong, Google left the Chinese government no way to compromise without losing face. A few months later, Google has had to cave further, providing China with a crippled search engine that effectively censors not just objectionable web pages but just about everything.
A smarter move would have been for Google to QUIETLY stop censoring results…and be sluggish about correcting the problem when it was brought to their attention. This would have satisfied the company’s moral qualms while forcing the Chinese government to actually threaten to kick the company out of the country. Google then could have caved modestly, censoring results here and there, just enough to keep the censors from following through on their threat. This would have provided a much better search engine in China, thus helping Chinese citizens way more than Google is now. It would also have helped Google’s shareholders, by allowing the company to continue to operating in the biggest future market on the planet.
As it is, Google will likely quickly become irrelevant in China. Its principled stand, meanwhile, has already been forgotten, and it has gotten next to no support from any other foreign companies. Baidu‘s share of the China market is surging, and it will likely continue to do so. And Google’s stock price has dropped sharply.
*UPDATE: Google provided the following in response to the original version of this post:
“As we said in our June blog, we asked the government to renew our licence on the basis that we would make some products–which don’t require any filtering by Google–available locally on Google.cn. We will continue to offer our uncensored web search and other services through .com.hk–so it’s entirely consistent with the position we set out earlier this year.”
A person familiar with Google’s position on this matter argues that, under this new solution, the company is not censoring anything and has not had to “cave” in the least.
We disagree with that view, as we feel the company’s China search engine has gone from censoring a handful of sites to censoring the entire Internet. We also note that Google has been forced to stop automatically redirecting .cn users to the HK site and instead merely provide a link to the HK site (which, as we understand it, China users were already able to access). That said, we can see how the solution does address Google’s moral qualms, as the company is no longer being forced to block some sites and not others.