The Internet behemoth Google announced last week it would stop filtering content for its Chinese-language search Web site in China, a bold decision that could lead to Google being blocked in China.
The move hoists a glaring spotlight on Beijing’s ongoing desire to stifle free speech and manipulate Chinese markets. And, while it looks like a hard stance against government censorship by Chinese authorities, it is not as simple as that.
The communist government in Beijing is well-known for censoring specific types of content on the Internet. It actively blocks Web sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — three of the world’s most popular information sharing, peer-to-peer sites. For instance, in the days leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, foreign journalists covering the Games reported they were not able to access parts of the Internet.
With all eyes on China, the country modestly let up on restrictions that summer; but, things since have taken a turn for the worse. Recently Google reported its sites had been attacked by hackers in China. They targeted human-rights and political activists inside China, putting them under surveillance and monitoring their activities. On a company blog a Google executive called the effort a “sophisticated cyberattack originating from China.”
This was the final straw for Google, which had been compromising its business practices to suit Beijing. It had unwittingly put its customers in harm’s way from the government.
Up until March 22, Google had made a deal with the devil: It agreed to Chinese government demands to block certain types of Internet content, including political speech. Given the “cyberattack” and ongoing meddling in free speech and digital information flow in China, Google retaliated by ending its censorship redirecting searches from its Web site in mainland China, www.google.cn, to its search engine in Hong Kong, which, while part of China, is more tolerant. How long Chinese authorities would allow this practice to go on was unclear.
Google’s attempt to make inroads into China may have been noble with the hope of making the country more open and free to information flow (and, of course, to make a buck), but it was a mistake to compromise free-speech and accede to Chinese authorities in order to do business in the country. Google has blocked search results in other countries, too, including Turkey, Germany and France.
Google’s chief competitor, Microsoft, seems to be willing to play ball with China, though, and many other companies in different sectors are chomping at the bit to break into Chinese markets, perhaps willing to compromise principles to gain new customers. But Google’s experience should provide a cautionary tale to companies looking to do business in China — be careful where you compromise in a business deal; some concessions are much larger and more important than others.