Google to stop censoring results in China; may close operations altogether

January 13, 2010

Photo credit: googlisti

This is the extraordinary and brave decision of Google, in reaction to hackers attacking both Google’s corporate infrastructure and attempts to access email accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

This is certainly the biggest tech story this year, and possibly of the millennium. Forget the iPhone, this is really important. This is about human rights, and putting beliefs ahead of commercial interests. As the story broke initial reaction from Asian stock markets hit Google’s share price – this was of course inevitable, their future growth and earnings could be severely restricted.

Why is this significant now? Google were heavily criticised four years ago when they launched a censored version of their search engine in China, but believed that the benefits of its presence in China outweighed the downside of being forced to censor some search results there, as it would provide more information and openness to Chinese citizens. Of course it was also clearly better for Google to operate in the country in a somewhat restricted way than not operate there at all.

However, things have now moved on significantly:

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.

Critics will point out that Google has “only” around a 30% market share, which is low, but they are the only real alternative to the market leader, Baidu, and as China has the most internet users of the world it’s still significant. For any public company to willingly exit the Chinese market is a bold step.

It really does appear that Google are staying true to their “don’t be evil” motto; they are putting their beliefs first and foremost:

This information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech

Indeed, and I can’t help thinking that perhaps Google, as one of the largest and most important global corporations can perhaps succeed here where Governments have failed? We’ve seen in recent years that foreign governments have little bargaining power in discussions with China. Can Google triumph here where entire countries have failed?

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, 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 Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

It may not come to that of course, but it’s already aroused a huge amount of debate on Twitter and huge outpourings of support from people who frankly were beginning to think of Google as a corporate machine. In one fell swoop this announcement has made Google respectable and cool again in the rest of the world, certainly with customers and staff, if not investors.

Link: Full Google announcement.

UPDATE: 22nd March – Google is effectively closing its mainland Chinese service and instead redirecting users to its uncensored Hong Kong site. More: Google blog posting.

Reaction to the breaking news on Twitter:

@Scobleizer: This breaking Google story is the biggest thing to happen in tech in decades. Huge impact all over the world.

@amorganis This possible move by Google has changed my whole perception of the company. Go Page & Brin!

@huwbowen Google just got awesome again: unbelievably great!

@friendofasquid Google = Wow.

@kelvin8048 Corporate Bravery from Google

@markbao Google has won a lot of respect for me for standing up to the China situation.

@sacca Google isn’t above reproach. But their bold China stance is why I feel lucky & proud to have worked there

@Blader Wow. That’s… Wow.

@tom_watson Wow: A new approach to China. They’re stopping censorship. Google=heroic

@ahfeel Congratulations Google ! I’m so happy to read these lines… This is really a great step forward.

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