Google Now Censoring In China

Oh, the irony. Less than a week after we hear that Google is
ready to fight
the US government in part to defend its users, now comes news that Google will
cave into the Chinese government’s demands for its new Google China web site.
However, the issues aren’t directly comparable. Moreover, while I’m no fan of
Chinese censorship, I like some of the way Google is reacting to the demands.
Come along, and we’ll explore the entire censorship situation in China, the US
and some other places you rarely hear discussed, like France and Germany.

What’s Google done? They’ve agreed to impose censorship on the
Google China service that’s

to be rolling out. Actually, Google’s had sites designed for those
in China to use for some time. They did obtain the Chinese domain that this
"new" site is using
back in May,
and you were able to search there uncensored by Google itself since that time.
Now Google is stepping in to do the censorship directly, rather than the Chinese
government doing it.

China was censoring Google without Google helping? Yes. It’s been that way
for years. It either began or really came to public attention back in 2002, when
people in China were suddenly
to find that they had trouble doing certain types of searches.

That later stopped to some degree, which caused some to speculate that Google
had cut some secret deal with China. But Google was always adamant this hadn’t
happened. Moreover, while the initial overbearing blocking stopped, other types
of blocking still continued (something that wouldn’t happen if some deal had
been arranged).

Wired had a nice article last year that illustrated how those in China
such blocking as imposed by the Chinese government, rather than Google.
Moreover, that blocking is one reason why Google seems to have dropped in
popularity in China while Baidu rose, as the LA Times
covered not
too long ago.

The one exception until now has been with Google China News. In September
2004, Google
to omit some news sources because the Chinese government itself was
blocking access to them. As they

to explain:

For last week’s launch of the Chinese-language edition of Google News, we
had to decide whether sources that cannot be viewed in China should be
included for Google News users inside the PRC. Naturally, we want to present
as broad a range of news sources as possible. For every edition of Google
News, in every language, we attempt to select news sources without regard to
political viewpoint or ideology. For Internet users in China, we had to
consider the fact that some sources are entirely blocked. Leaving aside the
politics, that presents us with a serious user experience problem. Google News
does not show news stories, but rather links to news stories. So links to
stories published by blocked news sources would not work for users inside the
PRC — if they clicked on a headline from a blocked source, they would get an
error page. It is possible that there would be some small user value to just
seeing the headlines. However, simply showing these headlines would likely
result in Google News being blocked altogether in China.

So was Google censoring or just acting to protect the user experience?
Whatever you call it, the end result was the same. You simply couldn’t find
certain sites that might be relevant in Google.

Today’s news is a fundamental shift. Google isn’t running for the cover of
protecting the user experience by omitting some news sites. It’s flat out saying
that the Chinese government wants it to do censoring in news search, web search
and other areas and that Google will comply.

Google’s complying for better access to the Chinese market, including being
able to base servers in China and have access sped up because the Chinese
government is not longer blocking them. Reuters

more details on this plus an explanation from Google:

"In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the
search results available on, in response to local law, regulation or
policy," the company said.

Aware of the trade-offs it is making, Google executives said they believe
the company can play a more positive role by participating in the Chinese
market, despite restrictions, than by boycotting the country in order to avoid
such compromises.

"While removing search results is inconsistent with Google’s mission,
providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts
to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission," the company stated.

Well censorship is just plain evil, right? So much for Google’s "Don’t Be
Evil" motto! Not necessarily. Government imposed censorship is always worrying,
because many people believe they should be able to decide what’s good and bad,
rather than their government doing this.

However, companies do have to follow the laws of the countries they operate
in. For those in the US and elsewhere to say Google shouldn’t follow Chinese
laws is hypocritical if they are not forcefully demanding that Google not follow
other laws.

To avoid this hypocrisy, I’d like everyone upset about the Google move in
China to also start protesting that the governments of France and Germany should
not require Google to remove Nazi or hate sites.

I’ve written about this and other types of country-specific censorship
before. My
Revisiting Google Censorship In Germany & France
post provides a variety of
references and tools that show this. But I’ll do a quick illustration here.

Search on for nazi,
and you get the American Nazi Party listed first. Ah, but those results are
oriented toward America, right? Not necessarily. Over at Google UK, a search for
nazi brings it up again. But
Google France? A nazi search
doesn’t find it. Is that because I searched for just French pages? No, it was a
worldwide search. Perhaps different ranking reasons? No. It’s because that site
has been

from Google France, as you can see here. Germany also censors sites.
Google Blogoscoped did a big
last year that illustrates this, and Boing Boing today
to an example
of a body modification site being banned.

If Google’s not going to obey Chinese laws, then neither should it obey
French and German ones. Nor perhaps should it follow US laws that require it to
pull material, as I’ll get to later in this piece.

Alternatively, Google could be selective and decide that some laws are simply
unreasonable, repressive or so bad that it won’t follow them. That means
abandoning certain countries, of course.

Google could do that with China. It would be a far braver, less evil company
if it said to the Chinese government that it won’t do the widespread censorship
that’s being demanded. Keep your money, good luck with your suppression of
knowledge and freedom, we’ll do business in other places. See you when your
policies change.

As for the actual censoring happening, if it’s going to happen, at least
Google’s doing it in a way that I’ve suggested in my
Got To Censor
Search Listings? Why Not Disclose?
piece from 2004. Do a search on something
that’s censored, and at least Google is telling Chinese searchers that their
government has force a removal.

Here’s an example. The Guardian has some
of searches that might cause sites to be blocked, including [tiananmen square
massacre]. So I

that on Google China. Down at the bottom of the results is this:


I don’t speak Chinese, but Google has a
translation tool I used.
It’s the typical bad, broken machine translation you typically get, but the main
point of what the Chinese are being told comes across:

According to the local law laws and regulations and the policy, partially
searches the result does not demonstrate.

Good. At least if the results are censored, there’s disclosure of this.
That’s far more than you’ll see in any other country where censorship is
happening other than the US. France and Germany? Multiple places are reporting
that Google discloses removals there. It does NOT, to my knowledge.

How about the US? Disclosure is related specifically to the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act and started not long after Google
came under
for removing pages from an anti-Scientology web site because of a
copyright infringement claim.

You can see this in action with a search for

kazaa, where you get
disclosure of two different pages that have been removed:

In response to a complaint we received under the
US Digital Millennium Copyright Act,
we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may
the DMCA complaint
that caused the removal(s) at

In response to a complaint we received under the
US Digital Millennium Copyright Act,
we have removed 1 result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may
the DMCA complaint
that caused the removal(s) at

Click on the links, and you are taken over to the source of the complaint,
documenting what was alleged.

The disclosure that Google is doing censorship in China could certainly be
pumped up. Over on Michael Connolly’s blog, in his

about MSN reacting to pull a Chinese blogger offline, I

I can understand you wanting to follow the laws of another country that you
operate in, despite the fact that I might not agree with those laws. But do
the laws prevent you from informing others that you’ve done this. In other
words, if you have to censor certain words, can’t you insert something like
"Content Censored In Accordance With National Laws." Or if you pull a blog the
Chinese government deems abusive, can’t you at least tell those in China still
trying to go to the former address, "Blog removed because of Chinese
censorship demands."

It seems that’s both following the laws but at least also helping those in
China understand exactly who to blame for the censorship.

So if Google’s going to do a disclosure but really in its heart doesn’t agree
with the censorship — as I imagine is the case — then get some backbone in
what you say. Use the charged word of "censorship." Say exactly what law is
requiring the material to be pulled. Give people an area or a way to express
their disagreement.

Finally, what about the entire hypocrisy of not bending to US law but doing
so with China. That’s not the case. In the action with the Department Of
Justice, Google has not disobeyed a law. US law allows people or organizations
to be subpoenaed. People also have the right to argue they shouldn’t be forced
to be a witness in a case. Google’s following the law in arguing against being
forced to provide information. It’s perfectly legal to do that. Ultimately, the
case will be decided. Google may be ordered to hand over material. If so, it
will do so — or it will face penalties under US law.

In China, it’s unclear what exactly the "law" is that is being used to impose
this censorship. It would sure be nice to hear more about that from Google
itself, along with as many details as they are legally allowed to provide.

a little light on this recently:

Virtually all Net outfits on the mainland are given a confidential list of
hundreds of banned terms they have to watch for. The list changes over time,
based on events such as the recent police shootings in the southern town of

The rules are even tougher for companies that host their sites on servers
in China. This group, which has included Yahoo but not Google, are pressured
to sign the government’s "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese
Internet Industry," the U.S. State Dept. says. Under the agreement, they
promise not to disseminate information that "breaks laws or spreads
superstition or obscenity," or that "may jeopardize state security and disrupt
social stability."

Translation: "If you own something, you’re responsible for what’s there,"
says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. That
leads companies to "err on the side of caution and self-censorship."

But I assume that some way, some how, they have no ability to appeal the
decision of what to censor. If they do have that ability — and haven’t tried to
fight it through Chinese legal channels — then sure, they deserve the taint of

By the way, this shouldn’t be a Google thing. Yahoo’s sort of sidestepped the
issue now by selling Yahoo China to Alibaba. As I
wrote, this
seems a handy way to run a service in China (Yahoo know owns 40 percent of
Alibaba) but throw your hands up about censorship and say, "It’s not us doing
it." Maybe Alibaba now runs things, but Yahoo with a major stake should be
pushing for at least disclosure of censorship to be provided. The same is true
for MSN, which operates over there.

Nor should this be a China thing. If you’re removing material from search
results for various reasons — spam, government censorship, whatever — disclose
that everywhere, not just in response to particular outrages.

In the end, I find myself struggling. I’m glad the disclosure is there. I
wanted to see that type of disclosure, and it’s welcomed. But I also want Google
to say no to China, to argue that the censorship the country wants to impose is
not based on reasonable, fair laws or in accordance with Google’s supposed
mission of organizing the world’s information.

Ultimately, I want Google to pull out and fight back. I can see the argument
for being engaged in a country, for trying to help promote change over time. But
I feel like Google should be big enough and principled enough to be engaged by
not being engaged. That might do far more good now than years down the line.

We’ve written before that US firms might be forced to do this type of thing.
A US Congressional
is about to happen to consider whether US law might prevent US
companies from obeying Chinese censorship demands.

Meanwhile, Rebeccca MacKinnon — who is excellent to read on China and
censorship issues —

to a Wall Street Journal
on the Google move that some companies are looking to see if they can set up
their own principles to force change:

Some U.S. tech companies are working behind the scenes to craft for the
Internet in China an equivalent of the Sullivan Principles, guidelines
formulated in the 1970s that helped mobilize U.S. corporate divestment to
protest South African apartheid.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders has a
petition going
that might be applicable to the current Google move:

Search engines: Search engines would not be allowed to incorporate
automatic filters that censor "protected" words. The list of "protected"
keywords such as "democracy" or "human rights" should be appended to the law
or code of conduct.

The problem is, this doesn’t go far enough. I wrote to them earlier this
month to say these cases seemed more about blocking sites that actually blocking
queries. A minimum, a better solution is to require disclosure if sites are
blocked in addition to protecting the ability to search itself.

A couple of last things. itself won’t be subject to Google-imposed
to the International Herald Tribune:

A growing number of visitors from China to the uncensored Web address will now be redirected to the self-censored,
Google executives said Tuesday. Citing concerns for the safety of the fewer
than 50 Google employees based in China, company executives spoke on the
condition of anonymity and insisted that all quotations for this article come
from a written statement.

What good is that if people are redirected? That’s actually normal behavior.
Google routinely redirects those outside the US to a country-specific version of
Google. Those who want to reach can do so by selecting the
" in English" link on the home page of these versions. The Google
China site has exactly this type of link.

Also, it’s not surprising if is uncensored. In my example with
Google France, my understanding is that someone in France could still go to, do a search and see Nazi or hate sites come up. It kind of makes the
French censorship laws a waste of time, but maybe down the line France will try
to force further changes.

I’m sure the Chinese government itself will continue to block
without Google’s cooperation, of course. It’s also possible that Google might
change the ranking of what you see at if you come from China, just as
they already do for other countries, as I’ve
explained in
the past. It’s also a good argument for stopping that type of skewing, as I’ve
argued for. Everyone going to should see the same thing, regardless
of their country of origin.

Finally, so far user information itself isn’t being raised as an issue. Some
worry what Google might do about email or blogging, where demands for personal
information or censorship have caused problems for Yahoo and MSN. The San Jose
Mercury News
touches on this
and has a Google response:

Google will introduce other services in China, such as e-mail and blogging,
"only when we are comfortable that we can do so in a way that strikes a proper
balance among our commitments to satisfy users’ interests, expand access to
information, and respond to local conditions.”

Before you breathe a sigh of relief, consider this. Part of last week’s worry
involved Google handing over search records to the US government that many
consider private. As I’ve
explained, no
personally identifiable information was asked for or would have been released.
You couldn’t link any private queries with any actual individuals.

That same type of information is about to be generated on computers based
within China itself. It’s likely we could see China made similar demands for
private search data, complete with personally identifiable information. Of
course, given the country’s already notorious monitoring of internet activity,
they’ll likely to have all this information already.

Want to comment or discuss? Please visit the
Agrees To Chinese Censorship
thread at our Search Engine Watch Forums.

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