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January 13, 2010

Google Stops Censoring Search Results in China

Four years after launching a censored version of Google's search engine in China, Google decided to stop censoring search results. The explanation from Google's blog is not very convincing:

In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. (...) We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. (...) As part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers.

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 2006, Google admitted that censoring search results in China compromises its mission, but failing to offer a service to a fifth of the world's population seemed to be a worse idea. "We ultimately reached our decision by asking ourselves which course would most effectively further Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible. Or, put simply: how can we provide the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people?"

In four years, Google's Chinese search engine doubled its market share and launched many local services, including a music search engine and a Pinyin input method.

"According to three different sources close to Baidu, the Chinese company had never felt the real pressure from Google until the end of 2008, when Baidu found that the workload of its manual optimization of irrelevant search results was exploding. Apart from improved quality of its products, Google's gain in market share was also the result of the search boxes in more and more associated sites," reported Michael Liang Zhang and Yan Luo.

In September 2009, Kai-Fu Lee, president of Google China, resigned and left Google. "In announcing Mr. Lee's departure, Google said it was nearly doubling the size of its sales force in China in response to strong growth."

"Last year, the state-owned national broadcaster CCTV's primetime news programme accused Google of spreading pornography, and a senior police official made a speech warning of "hostile forces" on the internet and vowing to stop the spread of dissenting political views online. The last year has also seen interference by China internet censors – often called the Great Firewall, or GFW – in Google services not hosted on Chinese servers, such as Google Docs and Gmail," reports The Guardian.

After four years of growth, Google's decision to stop censoring search results and to consider closing its offices from China seems strange. Google compromised its principles to improve the access to information in China, but failed to make some significant progress. Closing is a blow to the Chinese government, but it won't influence the freedom of speech and information in China.

Tom Krazit offers a plausible explanation: "Google has justified its presence in China as part of its lofty mission; this is a company that really does think it's engaged in business to better the world. But doing business in China while maintaining the moral high ground could well be more difficult than digitizing all the world's information."


  1. What exactly is "not very convincing" to you ?
    I can agree that the link between the hacking and the censoring is tenuous at best. But you should call it out if that's what made you write the phrase.

  2. "failing to offer a service to a fifth of the world's population seemed to be a worse idea." Since the government ruling that population is behind most of the hacking that comes out of the country, perhaps Google has a point, no, a right, to protect their resources from continuous pillaging.

    Perhaps you should call a spade a spade and let's see some accountability for the continued cyber-terrorism.

  3. See for another possible explanation.

  4. Are they (not) saying that the Chinese government is behind the attacks and therefore Google will stop kowtowing to them?

  5. Your article hints at disappointment with Google for not staying the course. While Google may have altruistic motives, they also have profit-centric motives. The latter allows them to indulge in the former. Furthermore, Google's business model likely does not not include reforming Governments. In my opinion, when Google entered the Chinese market, they did so first because they recognized a huge business opportunity. While they may truly deserve credit for being motivated by a desire to "better the world", recent incidents led them to conclude that ongoing compromise and foreseeable capitulation to the restrictions of a totalitarian government would not serve either of their purposes.
    I say, hats off to Google policy and decision makers for the effort (both business and humanitarian), and lets hope you made the correct choice.

  6. censoring is epic fail. i'm glad they changed their policy, regardless of the hack

  7. I wanna know too, what exactly is "not very convincing" to you?

  8. Several reasons for Google drawing a line in the sand - none related to failing to grab more market share. They already acknowledged that their last quarter was their best so far...

    The attack focused on gmail accounts of human right activists.

    Some aspect of the Chinese government was behind these attacks or at least associated with them.

    This was a direct attack against their source code. They said that intellectual property was stolen.

    The continued increasing of censorship is getting worse, not better - as they had hoped it would more than 4 yrs ago.

    Google's push toward the cloud (gmail, docs) and its benefits is called into question with these types of incidents.

    At some point, the moral motives reach a tipping point and can no longer be ignored, regardless of market size and potential.

  9. Maybe I missed the point in the article...but, how does discontinuing the censoring of search results and GMail being hacked by the Chinese have anything to do with each other? Maybe it's best that I just stay confused and not worry about least until they nuke the USA to spite Google.

  10. First, I am sure China is not the Only country/party to employ people to hack the net for information. Any country with a major army is obliged to search for threats in the most efficient ways. Different countries considers different 'things' a threat to the state.

    Second, I think Google is also afraid their biggest secrets can be stolen, and If that happens the state would not support them.
    Now some states believe other big states reguarly do this to support their own domestic companies. I think you can see what I am implying.

    Third, to actively trying to sabotage the operation is more serious. If it is done Company to Company, it can be fought in court. If it's done between a Company an a State it more complicated.
    In the Industrial era destruction of products property was serious. Now, in the Service era the destruction of time - will be - as serious.

    Either way, it's an economic loss.

    If Google pulls out, someone else will take the same risk. Most likely a domestic (Chineese) company or a Google competitor.

  11. I Agree wit "Ola" im sure their not the only ones

  12. You are claiming that Google has altruistic motives for this move, I don't buy it. It is money, as usual. We will see soon who is correct.

  13. From a posting on Dave Farber's Interesting People listserve, it appears Google China has actually stopped censoring to one or another extent. A search for Tiananmen massacre on shows pictures actually relating to the Tiananmen massacre, at least when accessed from the US.

    The .cn TLD doesn't mean that the server is in China, of course, and I would assume that it is not located there. Presumably, when that page is accessed from within the Great Firewall, either the links are blocked or the page itself is blocked.

    If Google is actually hosting and serving those images from a server in China, it would be a very interesting development.

  14. Well, it now appears that the censorship is back. Previously, I didn't get the message at the bottom of the screen saying some images may have been omitted (after autotranslation), but now I do -- and the pictures are much cheerier.

  15. Promising development. I wonder how long this will stay:

  16. If google stops censoring search results in china can they stop phishing scams or malware placed on the users' computers?

  17. Google was founded by and is still largely led by someone who does not have a good experience of totalitarian regimes: Sergey Brin was born and spent part of his childhood in the Soviet Union, and I don't think he is too happy about the idea of simply agreeing to whatever the Chinese Communist Party demands. Even though Google is a public corporation, it was careful to control how much influence its shareholders have, and I think that the leadership of the company still takes seriously the idea that they really don't want to be "evil." If you look at Brin's story, of the experience of his family, I think you will understand why Google is tasking this risk.

  18. google aren't a very cosy company, they just haven't been publicly busted.

    Their involvement withe the CIA through the keyhole project means that the CIA is one of the main shareholders in google.

    Just because you don't know it's evil doesn't mean it isn't.

    I'd suggest that any company has to make ethical choices and make compromises, there's no infallable "good" morality. Google are in the same camp, and the fact that there is little ethical debate about their commitments is to me a hallmark of 100% good propaganda.


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