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Q&A: Google and China


BBC
In June, Google announced a “new approach” in its ongoing battle with the Chinese authorities over internet censorship, saying users in mainland China will now have to actively click on a link before accessing unfiltered search results.

For the past three months, users were automatically redirected to Google’s unfiltered search site in Hong Kong to get round censorship issues.

So what’s going on?

The move is the latest in an ongoing row between the US technology giant and Chinese authorities over internet freedoms.

Tensions flared between the two in March 2010 after a number of Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists were hacked.

Although Google did not make a direct accusation against the Chinese government, it said it would no longer censor its search results, saying “we recognise that [we] may well [have] to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China”.

So Google China are redirecting users to Hong Kong. Isn’t that in China?

Yes it is, but it – and the province of Macau – are special self-governing administrative regions, set up as a result of their handover from the United Kingdom and Portugal respectively, with their own basic law.

Google.com.hk does not censor search results, making it more effective for networking and sharing information with internet users in mainland China.

Also, Hong Kong is highly dependent on the financial markets and city workers need fast and rapid access to information to enable them to keep pace with world events. A restriction on that flow of information would drive them – and a substantial amount of money – out of the area.

So how is the new change any different from what has been going on since March?

Google China now requires users click before redirecting to Hong Kong
It is a small but subtle change. Up until now, users were automatically referred from the Google.cn website to Google.com.hk Now, users will have to make an “active choice” i.e. clicking a link before changing sites.

The thinking is that Google is not now automatically getting users round the internet filtering and the onus now lies with the user, not the US search engine, in making that choice to circumnavigate government internet restrictions.

So what has happened to Google China then?

Google has effectively mothballed the Google.cn domain. Its only function now is a referral page (with an active link) to Google.com.hk

So how have China reacted?

It remains to be seen if this latest move will be enough to appease them, but there is speculation that the Chinese authorities may revoke Google’s licence entirely.

China condemned Google’s move in March, saying its attempt to get round China’s censorship laws was “totally wrong” and broke a promise the company made when it set up in the country.

What is the background to Chinese censorship?

Internet regulation in China started in 1993 and has grown since then. Today there are over 60 different laws governing what can (and cannot) be viewed on the net.

By the time Google China was founded in 2005, the laws controlling internet freedoms were very tight; the firm subsequently launched its Google.cn search page with censored results.

Of course, China is not the only country to have restriction’s on its search results and Google has a history of complying with national laws on language specific sites.

Google.de does not return results that conflict with national laws governing information about the Nazis, for example.

However, in almost every other country, users can log onto Google.com which has unfiltered results.

The problem they have in China is that the Google.com domain is blocked, meaning users can only use the Google.cn search page.

Why did Google agree to censor results in the first place?

It was a controversial topic: critics said it was a direct breach of the search firm’s motto of “Don’t Be Evil”.

Google claimed that it would have more influence on internet freedoms inside the country than out.

In a statement the firm said “While removing search results is inconsistent with Google’s mission, providing no information… is more inconsistent with our mission.”

What about other Western net firms in China?

No other net firm has taken the same action as Google. Yahoo, Microsoft and many others still operate on mainland China. They filter search results and censor the blogs and discussions carried out on their services.

In the past some firms have passed information to the Chinese authorities that has helped them track down dissidents.

In February 2008 hi-tech firms such as Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, gave a pledge to balance human rights with official calls to filter results. The US government is looking into how well that initiative has been working.

And if Google does leave, who will fill the search engine void?

Baidu is one of China’s largest search engine and actively censors its content, complying with Chinese legislation. Microsoft is also waiting in the wings, with the firms CEO – Steve Ballmer – saying the firm has no plans to pull out of China.

Originally published by BBC News. Read the original story here