For years, inquisitive minds hoping to Google search “the Tiananmen Square massacre” on Chinese soil have been met with disappointment. Because of zealous censorship, the results of their searches have been at best a dead end and at worst outright lies. Instead of viewing images of dead bodies and social protest against a line of tanks and armed soldiers, Chinese users have observed peaceful images of the modern-day square under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao. The reason for this stark contrast has been explained simply, yet vaguely, in response to blocked queries: “According to local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown.”
In an attempt to obey these “laws” and “regulations,” search engines such as Google have resorted to self-censorship in a way that echoes the tone of a desperate mother telling her defiant 16-year-old daughter, “Go ahead and drink, but I’d feel less responsible if you just did it at home.”
Since the launch of Google.cn, the company’s China-based search engine, in 2006, the relationship between corporation and country has been checkered at best. In the midst of a highly public battle for human rights against conforming to Chinese law, Google has explained its options as either giving in or facing imminent blackout. Clearly, as Google.cn maintains its interest to continue running, it has chosen the former. This being said, Google’s inability to take a definite stand against this Asian Goliath begs the question: Does this company allow itself to be bullied by China in order to maintain some kind of relationship with the information-starved Chinese people? Or do corporate business interests outweigh the importance of free speech in this lucrative global market?
Understanding a spike in Chinese Internet users, increasing from 22.5 million to 420 million in a span of 10 years, may clarify the question — which question, however, depends on perspective.
On Jan. 12 of last year, Google released a report on its official blog detailing sophisticated China-based cyber attacks that primarily targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. In response to this and continued violations against free speech by Chinese officials, Google decided it was unwilling to continue censorship in China and explained the potential shutdown of Google.cn.
“These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered — combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the Web — have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China,” David Drummond, Google’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, said.
Several months later, Google began to automatically reroute all Google.cn users to Google.com.hk, an uncensored, Hong Kong-based search engine. However, as this came with strong dissent from the Chinese government and pressure to renew its soon-to-expire Internet Content Provider license, the company quickly drew back and began to link only a small percentage of users to Google.com.hk through a landing page on Google.cn.
In a July 9 update last year, Google’s recoiling proved to be satisfactory for the Chinese government and its ICP license was renewed.
However, recent allegations against government officials have seen a rebirth in the wake of China’s own Jasmine Revolution, an online social movement inspired by similar events in the Middle East. The timing of this movement, in combination with the increased detection of interference with the Gmail accounts of Chinese customers, can be conveniently marked by Google’s announcement on March 11 that “we’ve noticed some highly targeted and apparently politically motivated attacks against our users. We believe activists may have been a specific target.”
As long as China continues to strangle the accessibility and privacy of Internet usage as it sees fit, this story is far from finished.