“AS THE world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world.” So declared Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, to a throng of reporters in Beijing. Given that his firm more or less abandoned China’s heavily censored internet search market a few years ago in order not to be “evil”, these sound like fighting words. Mr Schmidt went on: “The government has to do something—they have to make it possible for people to use the internet.”At first blush, such words would seem timed to throw Google’s considerable heft behind those who are pushing for freer flows of information in China. After all, the Middle Kingdom barricades its netizens behind a powerful firewall that censors searches, curbs expression and cuts off access to parts of the web. Just this week, brave journalists and their supporters at two Chinese newspapers have been protesting publicly over official censorship of their publications. They would surely welcome such international support for the free flow of ideas.
So is this the tale of Eric the Courageous, returning to the dragon’s lair to take another jab at the nasty beastie? Alas, no. Mr Schmidt was at Beijing’s airport on a brief stopover following a controversial private visit he made to North Korea. He had gone to the land where time stands still with Bill Richardson, a self-promoting American former governor who claimed that their visit would secure the release a Korean-American detained by the North Korean government. It did not, but the bizarre tour did provide the Google boss with the chance to make the case for internet freedom—from China, as it were—just, not in China.
Sadly, his firm’s past willingness to fight for the cause of internet freedom in China (much to its credit, and in sharp contrast with the spineless positions taken by competitors) seems to have suffered a setback. Though Google removed its servers from China, users on the mainland have been able to conduct searches through its Hong Kong website. Unlike Baidu and other local search firms, Google does not employ an army to self-censor its search results, something a minority of Chinese web users seem to appreciate (if Google’s minuscule market share is a guide).
This has resulted in a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. During special periods like the leadership transition late last year, Chinese officials simply shut down the most troublesome websites and “virtual private networks” (VPNs) that allow users to tunnel through the Great Firewall to the outside world. Most of the time though, censors do not block sites like Google: they simply make them painfully slow to use, and block individual search terms the authorities find objectionable (say, “freedom” or “Falun Gong”). The result is a frustrating mix of poor results, error messages and apparent incompetence on the part of the search provider.
In May last year Google cheered its users with a clever if ultimately futile act of defiance. It began informing users that particular search words and phrases did not produce results because, in its opinion, officials were exercising censorship. Google was blocked for 24 hours in November and the censorship of Gmail increased. Then, sometime in December, the firm appears to have stopped providing warnings. Great Fire.org, an activist group that monitors internet censorship in China, is so incensed by Google’s retrenchment that it fumes: “Google as an anti-censorship fighter may be unworthy of the name.”
Fair enough, but a question comes to mind. Why should Google be buckling under now? Some see crassly commercial motives, supposing that the firm has stopped crying foul on censorship in order to woo back the Chinese government on behalf of its business interests. Such folk observe that Google has recently announced a tie up with Qihoo 360 Technology, a Chinese firm that puts out popular antivirus software as well as the country’s leading web browser.
Qihoo is determined to take on Baidu, which has consolidated its grip on China’s search market after Google’s departure (it is estimated to command a share of greater than 70%). A tie-up with Google would help Qihoo to improve searches and to better match eyeballs with relevant advertising. Google could benefit from the tie-up as the benevolent rich uncle, using the local firm as a proxy for its commercial aims. By keeping Baidu from becoming an utter monopoly, goes this argument, Qihoo helps keep the China market open for Google’s eventual re-entry when and if the censorship regime changes.
That seems a plausible thesis, but there is another. Every move Google has tried to make to combat, expose or pervert China’s efforts at censorship has been met and defeated by the authorities—often with overwhelming force. This was true too of its latest warnings about censorship. In the end, it may be that Google simply stopped banging its head against the wall, having realised that the headache was pointless.
The notion that Google could curry favour with the leadership now by halting its warning messages is ridiculous, insists a former Google insider: “the opportunity to capitulate was lost forever when Google gave the middle finger and left.”
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