Google leaving China?

January 13, 2010
By | 2 Comments

Homepage of Google.cnAlongside economic growth and growing privatization in China, government censorship of entertainment and information media has remained in effect. Though outlets are generally no longer government-owned, there are limits to what can be said and done. Thus, when launched in 2006, Google agreed to abide by China’s censorship policies, removing certain search results from their listings.

Now, Google has announced that they may change that policy. It seems that a large-scale attack on their servers – as well as those of other major businesses, reportedly including Adobe – originated in China, and appeared targeted on the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. In a concluding paragraph to a blink-and-you-miss-it blog post, Google says:

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. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.


In the wake of the announcement, questions are being raised about whether the attacks originated inside the Chinese government, about the overall security of Google’s cloud-computing products, and about what this will mean for the over 300 million Internet users in China. Already, Secretary of State Clinton has asked for an explanation from the Chinese government, as “The ability to operate with confidence in cyber space is critical in a modern society and economy,” and Google has announced that Gmail will begin to automatically encrypt data for all users. Zhou Shuguang, a Chinese blogger, tells The Washington Post that “the withdrawal from China will wake up more Chinese and make more people discover that China lacks freedom on the Internet and the government has very strong censorship online. There are no benefits to people at all if Google continues to make concessions with Chinese authorities.” Certainly, Google withdrawal would be hugely unpopular among those who use the search engine.

Competing Chinese search engines, on the other hand, are downplaying Google’s announcement as a business decision made because of Google’s relatively small (20-30%) market share. Baidu, which controls roughly two-thirds of the Chinese search engine market, has already seen its shares rise 16% since the announcement, as it may soon become even more dominant.

There are obvious issues of freedom of speech, human rights, national policy, and industrial factors at play in this scenario, and it looks to be a high-profile developing story. Here, global networks are crashing up against national policies and cultural norms, and it’s unclear what (if any) outcome could satisfy the competing interests at play.


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2 Responses to “ Google leaving China? ”

  1. Wes Jacks on January 17, 2010 at 1:47 AM

    A good summary of the situation, Liz. But, as someone living here, I’d caution readers to be skeptical of any quotes that imply this will be a real ‘wake up call’ to average internet users in China. They know their internet is limited, and this particular blip will probably do little to shake things up. News media here is already casting Google as a whiny international company who has failed to conquer China in the way it wanted to and is now trying ignore Chinese law and infuse Western ideology into the realm of business. In any case, locals here tend to cheer pretty loudly when foreign companies are outmatched by local ones, as is clearly the case in this area of the market.

    • Liz Ellcessor on January 22, 2010 at 10:25 PM

      Really great points, Wes – I obviously can’t comment on the situation on the ground as well as you can!

      For more on the local situation, though, I thought Tricia Wang’s comments were really interesting. She’s currently doing work with Chinese migrants and technology, and she gets into a few of the immediate and long-term possibilities of the Google/Baidu situation.