Google on Monday carried through on its promise to end censorship of its local Chinese search engine, drawing an immediate and angry accusation from a Chinese official that raised the prospects of retaliatory action.
The US internet company sought to lessen Chinese anger by redirecting all search requests on its local Chinese service to its Hong Kong arm, which it said stood beyond the reach of Chinese censors.
“It’s entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China,” David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, said in a blog post announcing the move. “We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services.”
However, a Chinese official quoted by an official news service called the decision “totally wrong”, and said Google had breached “the written promise it made on entering the Chinese market”.
It was not immediately clear whether Chinese censors were taking steps to counter the change, which was announced and became effective in the middle of the night in Beijing. Beijing could block access in China to both Google’s local and Hong Kong search sites, just as it blocks many foreign websites on the mainland.
Meanwhile, the US administration continued to distance itself from any involvement in Google’s decision, while offering broad support for greater internet freedom.
“We are disappointed that Google and the Chinese government were unable to reach an agreement that would allow Google to continue operating its search services in China on its google.cn website,” said the White House in a statement.
Google’s action comes four years after it attracted worldwide criticism for first agreeing to bow to Chinese censors in order to run a legal search service from inside the country. It promised in January to end the practice.
In spite of Google’s efforts to cast its talks with Chinese authorities in recent weeks as a negotiation over whether it could continue to operate an uncensored service from inside the country, it has been roundly rebuffed by Chinese officials.
As its move appeared more imminent in recent days officials have taken an increasingly outspoken line against the company, and official news outlets have accused Google of acting as an agent of the US government in trying to put pressure on China.
“The Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement,” Mr Drummond wrote.