I have not yet been able to reach my friends in China to discuss this story, and for now I am judging the Google response strictly by what the company has posted on its "Official Blog," here, and my observations from dealing with Google-China officials while overseas. Therefore this will epitomize the Web-age reaction to a breaking news story, in that it will be a first imperfect assessment, subject to revision as new facts come in. With that caveat, here is what I think as I hear this news:
- It is a significant development. Significant for Google; and while only marginally significant for developments inside China potentially very significant for China's relations with the rest of the world.
- The significance for Google is of the "last straw" variety. For years, the company has struggled to maintain the right path in China. Its policy around the world is that it will obey the law of whatever country it operates in. You might object to that -- until you think about it: in a world of sovereign states, how could a company possibly say, "We'll operate within your borders but won't obey your laws?" (Similarly, Google's national sites in certain parts of Europe obey laws banning neo-Nazi sites and other material that would be permissible in the U.S.) Chinese laws require search engine companies and other Internet operators to censor certain material. Searches conducted by Google.CN -- in Chinese language, mainly for users inside China -- have obeyed those Chinese laws. Meanwhile searches on the main Google.COM have been uncensored for material like "Tiananmen Square" or "Dalai Lama." Anyone who could find a way to get to Google.com - about which more in a moment -- could find whatever he or she wanted.
Dealing with those requirements has been part of a non-stop set of difficulties for Google in China. More details about this later on. Like most other Western companies, Google has consistently decided to cope with the difficulties and stay in China. Part of the reason was the obvious commercial potential that the Chinese market has for almost any company in any industry. Another part was Google's argument -- which I basically believe -- that the Chinese public was better off with another source of information, even if constrained, than it would be without that option. But, as reported on Google's site, a latest wave of provocations and intrusions was simply too much.
- In terms of information flow into China, this decision probably makes no real difference at all. Why? Anybody inside China who really wants to get to Google.com -- or BBC or whatever site may be blocked for the moment -- can still do so easily, by using a proxy server or buying (for under $1 per week) a VPN service. Details here. For the vast majority of Chinese users, it's not worth going to that cost or bother, since so much material is still available in Chinese from authorized sites. That has been the genius, so far, of the Chinese "Great Firewall" censorship system: it allows easy loopholes for anyone who might get really upset, but it effectively keeps most Chinese Internet users away from unauthorized material.