November 15, 2016
By Asad Abbas, Junwoo Park, Sophia Sun
Where every word searched is monitored…
What: Google and all its sub-products
Where: Mainland China
When: At the behest of the Chinese government, Google censored materials between 2005-2010; it has been completely blocked by the “Great Firewall” since 2014.
Why: Google refused to censor politically-sensitive keywords
In 2005, Google China (or Google.cn) was founded in Beijing as the subsidiary company of the Internet service leader Google. Its original purpose was like other internet companies—to benefits from China’s massive amount of internet users, which make up to one-fifth of the world’s population. Google, however, encountered unprecedented barriers. Chinese officials were concerned that the vast availability of information Google brought would endanger the current communist state. As such, starting at 2005, the Chinese government forced Google to obey the local laws by censoring specific search results and blocking a bunch of “sensitive” websites from its Chinese users to limit what the Chinese citizens could look up online. However, after Google ceased its self-censorship in 2010 and denounced Chinese government for limiting rights of free speech, Google and all its sub-products were blocked by the Great Firewall in 2014.
China’s strict regulation of the internet has roots that began long before Google came into being. In 1997, the Chinese government issued a law called the “Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing.” In the fifth section of this legislation, the government lists the occasions in which the internet may be censored:
No unit or individual may use the Internet to create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit the following kinds of information:
Inciting to resist or breaking the Constitution or laws or the implementation of administrative regulations;
Inciting to overthrow the government or the socialist system;
Inciting division of the country, harming national unification;
Inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities;
Making falsehoods or distorting the truth, spreading rumors, destroying the order of society;
Promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence, murder;
Terrorism or inciting others to criminal activity; openly insulting other people or distorting the truth to slander people;
Injuring the reputation of state organizations;
Other activities against the Constitution, laws or administrative regulations.
As expected by the Chinese government, all internet information that went against the regulations above should be censored by legal search engines in China. In other words, if Google wanted to succeed in the competitive Chinese market, it must obey the local rules.
Google’s Schmidt on NSA, China, and North Korea
A 2013, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, who also helps illustrate the importance of understanding the government’s baseline. In this six-minute video, Schmidt argues that the Chinese government has monitored and censored the internet to make sure its regime would not be weakened or overthrown. He claims, “[Google] strongly disagree[s] with that….they [the Chinese government] don’t mind little things, but they don’t want things that violate the order as they see it, and the progress of the country as they see it.” As he points out, China’s government could tolerate different voices on minutiae, but the violation of core “principles” and policies would have no place on its digital networks.
Google’s censorship reflects its history and cultural background, which values protecting the government’s authority. For example, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre has been deliberately wiped from the public memory and is maintained through internet censorship. Details about the event and photos and videos of “Tank Man” are unavailable. In contrast, information and images are available through Google Image. The censorship of the Tiananmen Square incident demonstrates not just how the Chinese government shuts out all information and media related to this “pro-democracy” movement in 1989, but how it more broadly suppresses any materials that may smear its image and undermine its authority (Levin).
China’s Great Firewall has regulated Google since 2006 (Kim and Douai 174). This system inhibits oppositional or objectionable information from internet users. Under the supervision of the Great Firewall, Google.cn differed from Google.com. For instance, information against the Communist Party or the central government, including in blogs, emails, and video streaming services, was removed (Kim and Douai 175). The public’s reaction to Google’s self-censorship took two different forms. Dissidents argued that the company was betraying its mission and its customers by submitting to an oppressive government for the sake of profit, while proponents argued that Google was serving its original mission and offered Chinese users better access to more information in a comparably secure way (Kim and Douai 176).
Despite the annually-expanding profits and a dynamic Chinese market, Google’s prominence has remained unwelcomed by many local and international human-rights organizations. A number of non-governmental organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch, spoke out against Google, condemning it for leading to a massive negative public response that protests the violation of free speech in China(O’Rourke et al. 15). Google also faced massive economic shocks as its stock fell “7.5 percent from its high of $471.63 on January 11, 2006, as a result of the controversy” (O’Rourke et al. 18).
Finally, after five years’ struggle, Google announced that it would no longer violate its “conscience,” deciding to stop censoring sensitive materials on Google.cn. Consequently, the Chinese government responded with a statement condemning Google for “breaking its promises” (Wall Street Journal). The Ministry of Public Security of China claimed that Google had gone against the “Security Management Procedures in Internet Accessing.”
As Loretta Chao points out that it was inevitable that the authorities would likely “do something about” Google’s change in policy. Thus, under the pressure of the Chinese government, Google abandoned its presence in mainland China in early 2010. Meanwhile, it switched its search system from Google.cn to Google.hk. This decision, as analyzed by Kaveh Waddell, was a great loss to this international enterprise because Google “gave up access to an enormous market.” From Google’s perspective, it claimed that, as a loyal champion of free speech as well as a responsible international company, it decided to cease self-censoring Chinese users’ search results. Its reaction also served as a protest to the increasing number of hack attacks by the Chinese government on Google and at least twenty other companies (Google’s official blog).
These attacks….combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn….We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
Because “a primary goal of the attackers was accessing Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists,” Google believed that it was its duty to resist this invasion of privacy and limited allowance of free speech (Google’s official blog). It felt the need to defend the right for Chinese citizens to freely express their thoughts.
For a few years after Google’s exit, Chinese internet users could still visit Google.com or Google.hk but the Chinese government feared that the uncensored information allowed on Google might endanger the security of the whole nation. Eventually, on May 27th, 2014, the Chinese government completely blocked Google’s products. Chinese users with mainland China IP address are denied access to Google, including YouTube, Gmail, and Google docs/slides/sheets.
Nonetheless, numerous tech companies have observed from Google’s failure in China, and are gradually constructing their own ways of bypassing China’s internet censorship. Some Chinese activists have constructed methods to bypass “The Great Firewall,” creating loops around the system, such as “the cloud,” a supposedly “un-block-able Google mirror website that relies on encrypted cloud computing,” that helps Chinese users to visit censored foreign websites like Google.com and YouTube (Levin).
Abbott, Jason P. The Political Economy of the Internet in Asia and the Pacific Digital Divides, Economic Competitiveness, and Security Challenges. Praeger, 2004.
Douai, Aziz and Kim, Sung Wook. “Google vs. China’s “Great Firewall”: Ethical implications for free speech and sovereignty.” Science Direct,vol. 34, no. 2, 2012, pp. 174-181,29 October 2016.
Drummon, David. “A new approach to China.” Google Blog, 12 January 2014, Google, . 29 October 2016.
Frizell, Sam. “Here Are 6 Huge Websites China Is Censoring Right Now.” Time. Time, 4 June Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
“Google Goes Uncensored in China.” WSJ Video,uploaded by Wall Street Journal, 29 October 2016.
“Google’s Schmidt on NSA, China and North Korea.” YouTube,uploaded by Wall Street Journal, 29 October 2016.
Levin, Dan. “China Escalating Attack on Google.” The New York Times 2 June 2014. The New York Times.Web. 29 October 2016.
O’Rourke, James S. et al. “Google in China: government censorship and corporate reputation.” Emerald Insight,vol. 28, no. 3, 2007, pp. 12-22, 29 October 2016.
Wadell, Kaveh. “Why Google Quit China—and Why It’s Heading Back.” The Atlantic19 January 2016. The Atlantic.Web. 29 October 2016.
Keywords: Google, Google.cn, Google.hk, China, the Great Firewall, Internet censorship in China