One of the modern world’s most interesting and significant media battles has entered a new phase, with Google announcing a rather awkward compromise in its battle with the Chinese government. But the compromise may not be enough to placate the world’s most sophisticated example of networked authoritarianism.
Today, Google’s Chinese Internet Content Provider licence is up for renewal. If it isn’t granted, then Google has lost the Chinese market, and the Chinese population has lost the world’s most famous search engine.
Yesterday afternoon the company announced on its corporate blog that it had been told by the authorities that its current practice, of redirecting all users of its Chinese site, Google.cn, to the uncensored Google.com.hk, based in Hong Kong, was not acceptable.
Therefore the company has compromised by reinstating Google.cn as a “landing page”. Users can click anywhere on that page and be sent to Google Hong Kong, where they can conduct uncensored searches.
This means that rather than being automatically redirected, Chinese users wanting to have unfiltered search results have to make just one more click to achieve the desired results.
The difference is just one click. That is the nature of the compromise. But will this be acceptable to the regime? It seems that there is no done deal.
Yesterday Lucinda Barlow, the company’s communications manager in Australia, was tight-lipped on the detail of the negotiations with the authorities. It is clear, apparently, that the redirect was not acceptable to the regime — but it is not clear that the compromise will be sufficient to see Google’s licence renewed.
Those who follow these things will remember the background to this battle. In March this year Google, which had previously agreed to filter search results in China, announced that it would no longer do so. This followed the company being on the end of a “sophisticated cyber attack” from inside China. So Google began automatically redirecting all searchers to its Hong Kong-based site, which remained uncensored and offered results in simplified Chinese.
It is a high stakes game. If Google is kicked out of China, the world’s largest internet market, then its claim to organise the world’s information is left looking a bit limp. On the other hand if it folds and agrees to help the Chinese government control what the population can find out, then it would be a major strike against the company’s brand image and claim to be on the side of goodness and enlightenment.
Google is not the market leader in China. That position is held by Baidu, which will be the main beneficiary if Google loses its face-off with the government and is forced to, as the company puts it, “go dark in China’.
And there are even bigger issues at stake. Today the US China Economic and Security Review Commission (a body charged with reporting to Congress on the national security implications of trade with China), begins hearings on China’s information control practices and the implications for USA companies. As one of those to give evidence, journalist and academic Rebecca MacKinnon, remarks on her blog here, Baidu has two US directors and US investors provided much of its start-up capital. And it does the Chinese government’s bidding on censorship.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Baidu is now hiring 30 software engineers directly from Silicon Valley in its first direct recruiting from the US as it seeks to expand.
MacKinnon concludes that while many US companies are involved in dubious human rights practices around the world:
“I believe the Chinese people would be worse off if all American companies and investors were to abandon the Chinese internet. Investors who remain silent, however, should be clear about what kind of innovation they are financing. In addition to whatever product or service they set out to invest in, they are also supporting a disturbing new political innovation: networked authoritarianism.”
How this battle plays out will tell us a lot about what is and is not possible in the new media world when it comes to censorship. It will also tell us a lot about China, and how it manages its modernisation. And it will tell us a lot about Google, the ethics of Silicon Valley and the Western world’s investment community.