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Back in December 2009 Google and a number of other high profile companies were the target of several cyber attacks which were allegedly traced back to the Chinese government. In Google’s case the hackers appeared to be after the Gmail account details of a number of human rights advocates. We started to cover this story in January when Google announced that it was considering withdrawing its Google.cn operations following the attacks.

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

On its company blog, Google stated “We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that “we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.”

It was clear even back then that there was more to this than met the eye and that has become even clearer through recent news reports. Early last month rumours started to emerge that Google would be withdrawing google.cn from the beginning of April and it wasn’t long before the rumours sparked comments from the state controlled Chinese press accusing it of being a ‘tool of  American intelligence agencies and the US government’.

Then on 22nd March Google shut down the.cn site and redirected visitors to its Hong Kong based service, google.com.hk, by doing so Google can provide uncensored search results.

Once again on its official blog Google’s David Drummond said “We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we’ve faced—it’s entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China.”

Google has even gone so far as to produce a website which provides information on which Google services can be viewed in mainland China and which are blocked.

As long standing advocates of net neutrality we are pleased Google has finally made a stance against censorship. Elsewhere in the world Google had been vocal about its opposition to censorship (e.g. Great Aussie Firewall) yet in China it had previously remained quiet and appeared to be going along with the censorship regulations in order to enter this profitable growing market.

It does however appear that Google may have received more than it bargained for. The press recently reported that two of China’s largest mobile carriers have also dropped all relations with Google. Apparently under pressure from the government, China Mobile has cancelled an agreement with Google that utilised the company’s search engine on China Mobile’s website home page. Secondly China Unicom has reportedly postponed or possibly withdrawn from launching phones utilising the Google Android operating system.

Whilst Google’s withdrawal from the search market in China may have had minimum impact (as they only ever had 33% market share against Baidu in China) these additional withdrawals may have more impact as the company continues its international roll-out of the Android platform. That said, what it has lost in potential sales in China it has definitely made up for in positive PR throughout the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly human rights advocates are supporting Google’s move and calling for more high profile and influential companies to follow suit. Domain registrar GoDaddy is already following in Google’s footsteps after China introduced new domain registering regulations.

So what impact will the move have?

What will this mean for the rest of the Internet industry and what will it mean for other countries that have introduced similar censorship measures? In all honesty, probably not an awful lot!

The cynics amongst us may think this was just Google using the hacking scandal as the perfect opportunity to withdraw from a controversial market where they had limited success (in terms of search anyway), perhaps in order to minimise any further negative PR. For human rights advocates they probably don’t care what the reason behind the move was and are just glad that they now have a high profile, international giant on their side.

Countries such as Australia who have already been slated by net neutrality advocates and Google for the introduction of their ‘Great Aussie Firewall’ may need to watch this space though. Whilst far less controversial than the long term and much wider reaching censorship in China, net neutrality supporters continue to dispute the effectiveness and morality of the Aussie firewall and this latest news is only likely to strengthen their claims.

Here at Entanet we welcome net neutrality and believe information should be available equally to all users across the Internet without political, religious or cultural bias. Whilst we understand the Australian and Chinese governments’ attitude towards protection we do not agree that this can ever be effectively achieved through censorship and have a number of concerns over the morality of such schemes. We will continue to monitor such issues closely.

Have your say!

What do you think about Google’s response to the alleged Chinese hacking? Do you think they were right to terminate their operations or do you think they could have handled this differently? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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