In Brief: Google’s China Move

UPDATE: A more detailed version of this Backgrounder for news reporters can be downloaded as a PDF version.

Google announced today in a blog post that it has redirected visitors headed for google.cn to google.com.hk.

So earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.

As someone based in both Beijing and Hong Kong for significant periods in the 2000s and has been asked to comment on Google-China previously, here’s a backgrounder with some basic questions I’ve answered for reporters about the issue.

  • Google.cn servers are located within the borders of the PRC, and are subject to the ICP (Internet content provider) licensing scheme. Google had been self-censoring its search results to retain its ICP license. In the PRC, it is up to the operating entity to make sure it does not run afoul of the content guidelines put out by the authorities.
  • This morning, California time, Google changed things such that traffic to google.cn started to be redirected to the google.com.hk site, in the simplified Chinese character mode. (Hong Kong and Taiwan use traditional Chinese characters, while the mainland uses simplified. They are somewhat mutually intelligible, but it does require some adjustment in reading to  get used to the other system. More info here.)
  • Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) while technically part of China, is completely separate in terms of free speech, expression and rule of law. (See “One country, two systems.”) After it was handed over in 1997 by the Brits, it has had its own chief executive and Legislative Council independent of Beijing. Rule of law is strong in Hong Kong, with PRC dissidents and naysayers operating freely and in the open.
  • Hong Kong’s Internet service and content providers are not subject to PRC’s censorship regime. The Great Firewall of China also does not play a part in content coming into or out of Hong Kong with the rest of the world.
  • Google.com.hk results are not censored to conform with PRC ICP guidelines because being located in Hong Kong, it is governed by HK SAR laws.
  • Content between Hong Kong and the PRC *are* subject to filtering by the Great Firewall, because HK is considered outside the mainland’s domestic Internet. For that reason, even though Google.com.hk is not censored by Google, the HTTP stream (ie. Web traffic) going between HK and PRC may be interrupted by the Great Firewall, based on content. This is often seen as a “Connection reset” by the user.
  • It is possible that in the future, the Google.com.hk domain name or Internet protocol address may be blocked as a whole, but they don’t appear to be so right now.
  • While Google.cn Search, News and Images are now being redirected to HK, the Video, Music, Maps and Translate sites are not, and still seem to be hitting PRC domestic servers. (Google Music has gained notoriety because it provides free, legal downloads of popular music via top100.cn).

China’s just waking to the reality that Google.cn (now Google.com.hk) is now subject to the Great Firewall. Let the commenting begin.

36 thoughts on “In Brief: Google’s China Move

  1. It is a stupid move for google.

    It is the common sense, if you are in another country, you obey that country’s law.
    Google is a big company, but not that big.

    I just don’t get what could possible be that google get from all this.

  2. I’d hardly call Google’s move “stupid”, Mark.

    Clearly, Google doesn’t want to continue obeying the censorship laws of the PRC. Should anyone or any entity have to simply for a buck? Some people have morals and are evidently sticking to them.

    What Google ‘gets’ is a clean conscious that will be, in the long run, be more valuable and widely respected than a quick dollar now.

  3. Isn’t it Google’s motto “don’t be evil”. What Google is doing aligns to their corporate culture.

  4. What is quite apparent here is that all views on this subject are guesses. There is a lot more to this story than GOOG Bad or Good. Both Google and China are in spin mode, and until we learn more details concerning the cyber attacks – which at this point are very non-specific – we don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. This is what I find very odd. Here we have Google as the world’s purported Information Central and they have yet to tell their story, other than in broad strokes with unsubstantiated accusations. I see this situation as both parties still wriggling on their respective hooks, the only difference being that China is used to it and makes no excuses for their lack of transparency. Google, on the other hand, is is still trying to figure out what to do with that hook in their mouth.

  5. I think it makes sense … In a way, what Google has is said that they do not want to censor their results, but that China’s internet censors can do as they please via the great firewall packet sniffing / internet interruptions.

    For example, if I search for some banned material now, my Google page gets blocked and I simply get a connection reset message in the browser.

    Whereas before moving the google search to HK, Google itself would have been responsible for censoring the searches, now they just let China do it for them on China’s own terms.

    My one slightly more esoteric question about this is that I heard it is illegal by PRC law to set up a direct link from Mainland into HK (for example by a company) that would allow all traffic to circumvent the great firewall without a proxy or VPN. Sooo… in a virtual sense, hasn’t Google done something like this because the searches are getting sent through HK servers now? I suppose that they haven’t gone all the way in circumventing the GFW since they are still passing the traffic in clear text through the GFW thus allowing China to monitor traffic and block at will … but what if they were to allow users to log on and do searches via the HK server via SSL? so that the traffic was encrypted between the user’s browser and the HK server (a sort of poor-man’s tunnel) … THEN WHAT? hahah the internet wars continue LONG LIVE THE GREAT FIREWALL!!!!!!

  6. For any non-filter ssl server GFW will simply block the ip completely. Google will still able to do business in HongKong but serving China user will become almost impossible. Just like the reset of the non-chinese base google service e.g. YouTube, Google App, Google Doc, etc All have never been able to provide in China before. And it is not going to change. In a depth meaning, it may be a good step for Google to move out of China. And put that responsibility loud and clear that is China’s govt problem, so they can explain to the stock holder and able to leverage the public to fight this fight. BTW I don’t see google winning even they keep staying in China.

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  8. Let’s hope Google stays in China, since if it does not, this scenario can be repeated with other countries and this can cause a major turn around in free speech around the world! This incident is not just about Google’s business interests and pride; rather, it is about access to free and unbiased information!

  9. Andrew, first time I’m reading your blog, and I liked this post so much that I’m going to start RSSing you from now on.

    Good show and way to supply some info that escapes the echo chamber on the issue (!) — I was starting to tune out. By the way, I come to you via the Hao Hao Report and the good offices of Ryan McLaughlin…

    I think one of the better overviews on this subject comes via lawyer Stan Abrams at china/divide. Have you read it? http://chinadivide.com/google-does-evil-rise-of-brain-damaged-pundits-20100318.html

    He doesn’t get all esoteric — just lays it out there pure and simple. Albeit legalistically, but still.

    I’ll mention it to Ryan as well…

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  13. Google had no problem with China’s censorship practices. They went in knowing the situation. Given their motto, they clearly did not and do not consider it “evil” (although in other areas they seem to be pretty iffy in their judgment of such things.) Their departure is a temper tantrum in response to China-based hacking of their systems, another thing that it’d have been hard to be unaware of going in … unless they, like many westerners, dismissed reports of such things as another case of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” and thought, pretty naively, that they would somehow be spared. Perhaps because they’re not “evil” or something.

    It is my understanding (from reports in Taiwan) that China has effectively painted Google negatively enough that many Chinese people want Google gone. Any sense of how accurate that is, or how widespread?

  14. Google had been a hypocrite themselves by bowing down to China’s censorship requirements on the first day they set foot on China market. Surely you couldn’t say they’re upholding their moral & ethics judgment at this time. They’re just trying to redeem themselves at this point of business decision.

    Saying that Google’s move is for long term good rather than a quick buck is also a short sighted word. Google had just missed out a large piece of gold with this move, forever closing further opportunities in China.

    It’s a very smart move by Steve Ballmer to stand by their decision to do business with compliance to law.

    Google can actually missed out this self-brought moral ethics conflict by actually do ‘no’ evil by complying with laws of a country. But they just had to be the super hero and be a hero for everyone…

    Evolution is needed to bring around change in China’s business environment, and revolution is a no go.

  15. While I appreciate all the chatter about ethics and principles, this is really going to boil down to a shrewd analysis of revenue streams.

    Google makes money on ads. Google depends on it’s reputation to encourage people to trust them with their data which in turn drives more ad revenue. China wants non-Chinese companies to spend more money in China.

    Both Google and China are carefully dancing around each other and waiting to see what the new traffic patterns look like before taking another step. Neither wants to be hasty and make comments or take actions that might hurt future business opportunities.

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  17. Australian government just this week asked Google to censor Youtube. In fact, Google censors for over 20 countries around the world. General Motors once boasted “What’s good for GM is good for USA”. In the same hubris, Google is saying “What Google wants, the whole world should obey.” Google has shown itself to be just as self-absorbed, self-righteous, controlling and hypocritical as any government it criticizes.

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  22. Can’t imagine surfing the internet and getting “connection reset’ errors as big brothers determines what you can, and can not see.

    disturbing

  23. I suppose that they haven’t gone all the way in circumventing the GFW since they are still passing the traffic in clear text through the GFW thus allowing China to monitor traffic and block at will

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  27. “they are still passing the traffic in clear text through the GFW thus allowing China to monitor traffic and block at will”
    can’t get the meaning…

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