Google’s announcement on Monday that it would start serving up uncensored internet search results to users in China earned it the wholehearted support of internet freedom advocates that it had lost when it first bowed to censorship four years ago.
But the decision also drew an angry and predictable reaction from Chinese authorities. While there were no immediate reports of official action to block the newly uncensored results, many observers predicted that such a response was a foregone conclusion.
Google’s move to end censorship had been widely anticipated in recent days, but the method it chose was less expected.
Google did not drop its local Chinese search service, Google.cn, as some observers had expected, but instead said it would redirect much of the traffic to the site to its Chinese-language service in Hong Kong, Google.com.hk. All requests for the web search, Google news and image services would be directed to servers in Hong Kong, which are not governed by Chinese censorship rules, the company said.
The Chinese authorities have a number of options if they want to filter or block the uncensored results from reaching local citizens, according to internet experts.
They could simply “grab back the [Google.cn] domain name”, said Leslie Harris, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based internet freedom group. That would prevent traffic from being directed through to the Hong Kong service, but would also deprive Google of other less controversial music and maps services it said it plans to continue running on the Chinese site.
Alternatively, China could allow the searches to go through to Hong Kong, but then censor the results that are returned. That would involve applying the sort of filters that are already in place in the “Great Firewall”, the censorship system used to censor all foreign websites.
Google’s action has thrown down a challenge to China, since it will force the authorities to be more transparent about censorship rather than hiding behind a foreign company, Ms Harris said. “I don’t know if this will end well for Chinese users, but you have had a US company stand up and challenge censorship, and we haven’t had that before.”
Google’s attempt to draw a line in the sand on censorship will only have an effect if foreign governments unite in supporting it, said Ed Black, head of CCIA, a US technology trade association.
The White House offered measured and careful support, and continued to distance itself from any involvement in Google’s decision. “We believe that freedom of expression and unfettered access to information are internationally recognised rights,” it said in a statement. “The US-China relationship is mature enough to sustain differences and while we seek to expand co-operation on issues of mutual interest with China, we will candidly and frankly address areas of disagreement.”