Google bans adverts for anti-censorship sites in China

Google China

Google has sported a rocky relationship with China for more than 10 years. While the company’s on again, off again approach to the Internet’s largest ‘untapped’ market has always been tempestuous, recent developments suggest the tech giant may be yielding to its own growth imperative and bending to the government’s demands once more.

For more than a year, the debate has raged over accusations that the Chinese military is capitalizing on Google’s research and business activities in China. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee in March that Google’s work in China indirectly benefits the Chinese military, an accusation soon echoed by President Donald Trump.

Anxiety surrounding Google’s international and institutional affairs is nothing new. Last year, the company faced huge criticism after word leaked that it was building artificial intelligence (AI) tools to analyze drone footage for the Pentagon’s ‘Project Maven’. Executives experienced similar uproar over ‘Project Dragonfly’ in 2018, a secretive effort to develop a censored search engine for the Chinese market. This prompted outcry from employees and politicians who criticized Google for helping China withhold information from its citizens. CEO Sundar Pichai has since pledged not to go forward with the censored search product—at least for the time being.

Google has generally limited its operations in the Chinese market since 2010 when it pulled the majority of its products amidst a battle over censorship. Some branches of operation have been maintained, most of which relate to the distribution of Android software and Google Adverts on third-party websites. Despite this tumultuous history, the company’s latest movements have been speculatively characterized as an attempt to regain favor with Chinese officials in a bid to gain a foothold in the country’s heavily regulated internet market.

A bow to state censorship?

Following calls from China’s market regulator for internet platforms to strengthen their censorship and monitoring of advertisements, it was recently revealed that Google has now banned the distribution of advertisements in China for websites that review anti-censorship software – the very tools that many Chinese people rely on to access Google’s services.

Two companies reviewing virtual private network (VPN) software – tools that allow users to circumvent surveillance and censorship – have reported Google refusing to sell their ads to Chinese users after doing so for over two years.

Representatives from Google have issued a response stating:

“This is not new. […] It is currently Google policy to disallow [sic] promoting VPN services in China due to the local legal restrictions […] We have long-standing policies prohibiting ads in our network for private servers in countries where such servers are illegal. All advertisers have to comply with local laws.”

Though the software is essential for Chinese citizens to use Google’s search engine, email, and cloud services, VPN providers and associated websites are now blocked from promoting themselves through Google ads in the country, despite the fact they do not explicitly violate Chinese law.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Charlie Smith of GreatFire.org, a censorship monitoring organization criticized Google’s blunt action in relation to these advertisers as being too broad. He said:

“…there are legally registered VPNs operating in China, so either Google has not kept up to date with local regulations, or they are overstepping their boundaries.”

As it stands, there is no explicit, all-out ban on VPN providers or review websites in China, though providers do need to obtain a license to operate in the country.

The advertisements in question did not explicitly violate Chinese law, which suggests that Google may be following its own prerogative rather than meeting a legal obligation. What’s more, non-Chinese language ads appear to be unaffected by the restrictions, which suggests that Google has come under pressure from Beijing to block ads aimed specifically at Chinese citizens rather than those targeting foreigners. Spokespeople have yet to answer whether the ban was put in place of the company’s own accord or as a response to requests from Chinese authorities.

Freedom of information

Google’s choice to capitulate to the censorship of advertisements raises questions about the company’s complicity in political restrictions on the freedom of information. Controls such as those in China favor only the information that promotes government interests.

When Google shut down its Chinese search engine nine years ago, it announced it was no longer willing to censor search results, thus devastating its relationship with the country’s officials. Just last year, the company’s official position on content moderation stated its loyalty to political neutrality:

“Google is committed to free expression — supporting the free flow of ideas is core to our mission. […] Giving preference to content of one political ideology over another would fundamentally conflict with our goal of providing services that work for everyone.”

It’s clear that future access to the Chinese market requires complicity with state censorship tools, and these developments suggest that Google is willing to bow down to the government’s demands in order to achieve this. The decision to remove advertisements for legitimate security tools further deprives Chinese users of the ability to find uncensored material and undermines the company’s claim to political neutrality. It raises a particular question: If Google is in the business of expanding access to information, why do they not conceive of their business in these terms in China?

A fragmented Internet

There is more resting on Google’s movements in China than whether it might be putting profits over principles. The company’s relationship with the world’s second-largest economy tells a wider story of what happens in a world where the Internet is split in two at a time when our realities are largely driven by what we read on the web.

China’s escalation of media and communication controls over the past decade has manufactured an Internet and information economy entirely disparate from the model that dictates our lives in the West. Choosing to support this distinction does nothing but widen the digital wedge driving China and Western countries apart, and enables anything but the free flow of ideas. If China and the US continue to live in separate “cyber worlds” and absorb two distinct information realities, how can we expect the two entities to effectively cooperate on the world stage and negotiate political issues outside of internet governance?

Even in an environment where Western users are calling for platforms to limit user freedoms in exchange for security, it is only appropriate to recoil at the idea of a global platform that wilfully bans material in support of an authoritarian regime.

What it means for search marketers

China boasts a thriving digital economy. If you’re looking to grow your business and haven’t yet capitalized on this market, you may be missing out on tens of millions of relevant queries.

If you’re focused on improving organic performance alone, Google’s international decisions will have little impact. Instead, you’ll need to focus on Baidu. One of the world’s largest internet companies, Baidu’s search engine has an index of over 750 million web pages and accounts for well over 70% of Chinese internet search queries. Like Google, Baidu also offers music streaming services, maps, images, data storage and, most importantly for business growth, pay-per-click ads.

If you’re targeting Chinese users through Google Ads, Google’s strategic decisions will be paramount. It’s likely that this ban and those yet to come will affect other Google-owned services like Google Marketing Platform and Google Ad Manager.

The impact of these decisions will depend on the nature of your website, product, or service, as well as your target audience. If you intend to target Chinese users rather than foreign visitors to China, or your business provides a service that might be deemed incompatible with China’s agenda even if it’s not technically illegal,  it may face a similar fate. Though you may be unaffected thus far, it’s essential to stay on top of Google’s relationship with large markets like China to predict potential impediments to your marketing efforts and formulate an effective alternative strategy.

William Chalk is a cybersecurity researcher and digital privacy specialist. He covers these issues for leading tech publications to help support our digital freedoms. He can be found on Twitter @_WilliamChalk. 

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