Google's Smart Solution to Stay in China Without Censoring

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On the verge of getting kicked out of the Chinese market, Google decided to concede to the Chinese government's demands -- a little. In January, the company announced it would no longer cooperate with the Chinese officials, after learning of a hacker attack targeting human rights advocates using Google products. This was the last straw in an ongoing battle over the search provider's discomfort with China's censorship policies. But yesterday, Google made clear that it wasn't so keen on exiting China after all. Although critics will likely assail the firm for ignoring its previous threats, it made a smart decision that will ultimately benefit the Chinese people.

In order to skirt censoring its Chinese searches, several months ago, Google began automatically redirecting users trying to access Google.cn (its Chinese web portal) to Google.com.hk (its Hong Kong version which provides unfiltered results). It turns out that China's government was not amused by the tactic, since the Chinese users were still explicitly directed to a webpage providing uncensored search results. As a result, the government threatened not to renew Google's license to provide Internet content.

Faced with this possibility, here's Google's solution, from its blog:

That's a prospect dreaded by many of our Chinese users, who have been vocal about their desire to keep Google.cn alive. We have therefore been looking at possible alternatives, and instead of automatically redirecting all our users, we have started taking a small percentage of them to a landing page on Google.cn that links to Google.com.hk--where users can conduct web search or continue to use Google.cn services like music and text translate, which we can provide locally without filtering. This approach ensures we stay true to our commitment not to censor our results on Google.cn and gives users access to all of our services from one page.

This is an amusing move. By month's end all web users trying to access Google.cn won't be able to perform a search on that site. Instead, if they want to search, they will have to click on a link that brings them to Google.com.hk.

The solution is a slick idea because Google won't be censoring its Chinese website; indeed, it won't provide any search results through it to censor! But it still gives Chinese users the ability to run an uncensored search, without automatically redirecting them to do so. It's a win-win situation.

That is, if it pacifies the Chinese government. All Google has really done here is added in an extra step. It's hard to understand why Chinese officials would be much more content with Google urging users to click a link to lead them to a Google.com.hk search, rather than just redirect them there automatically. If this change does satisfy them, however, then that's great. Google found a way to remain in the market without compromising its ethical views about censorship.

And Google should maintain its presence in China. As the press release states, it's the Chinese users that Google should be most concerned with in order to comply with its "don't be evil" mantra. If the company stubbornly allowed its license to expire and left the nation entirely, then any Chinese web surfers yearning for uncensored Internet content would be worse off. No one else is willing to tango with the government, but at least Google doesn't mind pushing the envelope a little.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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