Gung-ho Google decides to take on China over censorship

Google is picking a fight it can't win with China over censorship. But maybe it doesn't want to?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Far from attempting to thaw its frosty relations with China, Google has escalated their spat: it’s now effectively lifted censorship on its Chinese search results, by re-routing traffic to its (uncensored and unrestricted) Hong Kong homepage. Naturally, the Chinese government is hopping mad about Google’s refusal to comply with its laws; it’s now threatening to take the matter to court, and muttering darkly about the effect on US-China relations. Google may have some good legal news today after the European Court of Justice ruled in its favour in a trademark row with Louis Vuitton. But since China’s censorship laws are fairly cut and dried (as Google has previously accepted), we doubt they’d have the same success in a Chinese court…

After taking a kicking in the (state-controlled) Chinese press this weekend, Google announced a ‘new approach’ to China yesterday – Google.cn users will now be redirected to Google.com.hk. This was a ‘sensible’ and ‘entirely legal’ solution to the problem of how to make uncensored search available in China, Google said, adding: ‘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.’

You don’t say. China reacted with predictable fury, calling Google’s actions ‘totally wrong’ and accusing it of violating a ‘written promise’ it made to abide by the law when it first launched in China. It’s also threatening various dire consequences – possibly to include court action. The only consolation is that China is now insisting this won’t harm relations between the US and China; a Foreign Ministry official said: ‘I don't see it influencing Sino-US relations unless some people want to politicise it’. (Erm, like having a state media outlet accuse Google of having high-level ties to the Pentagon?)

Google knew the rules when it went into China, and agreed to abide by them (it admits itself that the Chinese government was ‘crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement’). So presumably it won’t have much of a leg to stand on if the case does go to court. We can only assume it hopes the PR and reputational benefits of its stand elsewhere in its global empire will outweigh the commercial downside of jeopardising its (relatively small) Chinese revenues.

That said - in the long run, it could live to regret burning its bridges in the world’s biggest internet market. So we doubt this will be the end of the story.


In today's bulletin:

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Gung-ho Google decides to take on China over censorship
VT Group succumbs to £1.3bn Babcock offer (reluctantly)
Editor's blog: Ex-parrot shows doctors keen to feather their nest
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