Google to China: Take Your Firewall and Shove It

Last Updated Mar 22, 2010 5:03 PM EDT

Google (GOOG) has taken the penultimate step in its "negotiations" with China -- it has stopped censoring searches for users in China. But to do so, it is invoking a legal technicality that probably won't go over well, or for long, with the People's Republic.

On its official blog, Google announced at noon, Pacific time, that it was finally ending censorship of search results for users in mainland China:

So earlier today we stopped censoring our search services--Google Search, Google News, and Google Images--on Google.cn. Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from Google.com.hk. Due to the increased load on our Hong Kong servers and the complicated nature of these changes, users may see some slowdown in service or find some products temporarily inaccessible as we switch everything over.
Google originally started down the non-censorship road as an ultimatum, saying on January 12 that it was "no longer willing to continue censoring" search results for users in mainland China. I thought that the entire action was a smokescreen -- not about human rights so much as Google's desire to control information and to serve as many search results as possible to make more money in the country. As company co-founder Sergey Brin said last year, "On a business level, that decision to censor -- was a net negative."

[UPDATE: a Google spokesperson called me to dispute this view, saying that it really is all about opposing censorship and not making money because the money it makes from China is so little as to be immaterial and that my assertion was unfounded and unproven. When I pointed out that simply claiming the opposite was just as much an assertion, she pointed to Google's own blog posts as proof. My take -- sorry, but resting a case on PR isn't all that convincing to me.]

Within two days, Google began waffling and started talking about negotiating with China -- all while putting off the termination of censorship. It continued the good cop/bad cop strategy throughout the month. However, given Chinese history and its long-demonstrated approach to negotiation strategies, the idea of a company trying to play hardball with the Chinese government has been mystifying. Google has seemed alternately blindly arrogant and hopelessly naïve.

Today's move offers more of the same. Admitting that the Chinese government has been "crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement," Google then said that it was redirecting search results through its Hong Kong operations and that the tactic was "a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced" and "entirely legal." Google is telling China that search censorship is over, and that this is fine on a technicality.

All I can think is that the company is trying to wear the mantle of "protector of freedom" as a PR move for the folks back home, because to think that this arrangement will last is nuts. (Do you see Google threatening to end censorship in other countries that require the practice?) Furthermore, the gambit is incredibly dangerous. What of Google's employees in China? Who does CEO Eric Schmidt think will pay for what the Chinese government is bound to deem a blatant violation of law? (Hint: Those least able to fight back.) And is that acceptable collateral damage, in the context of what's best for Google?

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.