Google have stopped censoring their users search results in China, after relations between the US company and Chinese officials rapidly deteriorated in the past few months. Google have now moved their Chinese-language search engineers to new offices away from mainland China to Hong Kong, while research and advertising teams will remain at their current posts.
The Chinese government has swiftly denounced Google’s actions, branding them “totally wrong” and having had “violated its written promise”.
Google’s move follows a high profile hacking attempt that has reportedly been traced back to Chinese government related activities. It is believed the Chinese government were searching for details on pro-democracy and freedom of speech demonstrators, and on information relating to censored intellectual properties.
Those previously using google.cn will now be re-directed to google.hk, where a message reads “Welcome to Google search in China’s new home.” However, though Google will no longer filter search results, the Chinese government’s own strict firewall system will still mean that many sensitive websites will still be inaccessible.
Google’s move therefore is mostly symbolic; their self-censorship in the past was invisible, meaning that its users would likely have been unaware of any missing results. However, though the Chinese censors can still block results via their own firewall, Google’s move now makes it explicitly clear when results are being interfered with, as users internet connections are reset when attempting to access the information.
As blogger Michael Anti, points out “The biggest difference is that netizens will notice the existence of censorship. Because it was self-censorship before, they weren’t aware of it. But now it is the great firewall, people can see what has happened.”
Many now see Google’s position in China as now untenable, expecting business in the territory for the company to become increasingly difficult. China represents the world’s largest internet population, with almost 400 million active users.
Though Google’s move is a bold one, it’s ultimately a sad day for the internet. For many years the world has put faith into the power of the internet to change China for the better, but the government’s might has now proved too strong. Google’s retreat was a valiant middle-fingered salute to the censors, but it remains a retreat nonetheless.