The world's most populous nation represents a vast, untapped marketplace for Google. But China also symbolizes an enormous challenge for Google: exporting a search engine founded on Western principles of openness to a regime that routinely censors free expression and dissent.
Google launched a Chinese-language version of its site in 2002 and added Google News in 2004. But as the site's popularity grew, Chinese officials increasingly demanded that Google censor material they said would inflame anti-government sentiment.
“Senior Google executives believed they had to make a choice between denying Chinese citizens some political searches and denying them all searches,” journalist Ken Auletta recounted in Googled, the End of the World as We Know It. In response, the company in 2006 set up a separate website, www.google.cn, that offered “politically sanitized searches in China,” Auletta wrote.
Topics such as independence for Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre were off-limits, while a search for the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong led Web users to content condemning the group.
In January 2010, Google revealed that its servers had been hacked from China in a sophisticated operation and that the Google Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists were targeted — with at least two such accounts accessed. The hackers reportedly also breached the servers of at least 20 other large U.S. companies. In the course of investigating the attacks, Google discovered phishing scams and malware designed to infiltrate the accounts of Gmail users in the United States, Europe and China sympathetic to Chinese dissidents.
“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 senior vice president and chief legal officer, said in a blog post. “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn.”
For Google, the hacking signified that the company's “China problem” — as author Steven Levy describes it — could no longer be contained. “After weeks of struggling with the issue, Google's Executive Committee” — including Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin — “finally agreed on the most significant and embarrassing retreat in the company's history,” Levy writes in his book, In the Plex. “On Jan. 12, 2010, they changed course in the country with the world's biggest Internet user base, announcing an effective pullout of their search engine from mainland China.”
A Chinese flag flies outside the Google China headquarters in Beijing on Jan. 14, 2010. Shortly before, Google, which faced censorship demands from Chinese authorities, announced it would shift its Chinese-language website to Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that operates with significant autonomy. (AFP/Getty Images/Liu Jin)
Google now tries to circumvent communist Chinese censors by automatically rerouting users of Google.cn to Google.com/hk, a site in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that operates with significant autonomy. “This redirect, which offers unfiltered search in simplified Chinese, has been working well for our users and for Google,” Drummond wrote in a June 2010 follow-up blog post. But he also cautioned that Chinese officials “find the redirect unacceptable” and might refuse to renew the company's license.
In a sign that Beijing is accepting Google's “workaround” solution, mainland officials renewed Google's Internet license for a year days after Drummond's post, and this September they did so again.
Siva Vaidhyanatahn, a media-studies and law professor at the University of Virginia, contends in his book, The Googlization of Everything, that Google's retreat from China gave the government there exactly what it wanted: “to be rid of a troublesome company that was never comfortable operating under Chinese law.”
But he also emphasizes that the arrangement has not ended the censorship. “The Chinese government itself censors and often blocks access to the Hong Kong-based Chinese language version of Google,” he writes. “So no one in China ever sees an uncensored version of Google search results.”
— David Hatch