Google's move to shutter Google.cn and reroute users to Google.hk March 22 represents an interesting move on the part of the search engine, which trails Chinese search leader Baidu in that country.
Google's move covers its Google Search, Google News and Google Images sites on Google.cn, all of which users may access uncensored at Google's Hong Kong site Google.com.hk in simplified Chinese.
Gartner analyst Whit Andrews told eWEEK Google essentially thought it would take the business out of China where it can't tolerate censorship, then "Let's see if I can locate it nearby [Hong Kong] in a way that would give China the possibility to save face and give me a way for me to save face. Well, it doesn't look like it's working, does it?"
Andrews said that from the Chinese perspective, censorship is non-negotiable. "Their take is 'This is a law. We put the law in and now you have to follow it. If you don't follow it, you don't get to do business with us."
Here are some interesting points about this story, which won't end with Google's latest move.
1) How Can Google Get Away with Rerouting Searches to Hong Kong?
For citizens of countries with one government, this is an interesting point. China has had since the 1980s a "One Country, Two Systems" policy. This holds that while there is only one China, Hong Kong and other areas enjoy their own economic and political systems.
Google, as Danny Sullivan noted, is looking to do an end-run around China's censorship laws with this move. While Google's legal eagle David Drummond said in a statement that "we very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision," there is certainly some ambiguity as to whether this is legal or not, as Sullivan noted: "If it's entirely legal, then Google shouldn't need to be hoping."
2) To Whit
To our ears, this sounds like a tightrope walk to trouble. Gartner's Andrews added: "If Google said this was illegal, then you know China would have to block it. China can't have someone thwarting them." What Google has to say is it believes it's legal, but that it isn't sure (hence, the word "hope" in Drummond's statement).
Indeed, Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the New York Times: "We got reasonable indications that this was O.K. We can't be completely confident." This fuzziness keeps Google from seeming to be blatantly disregarding Chinese law, even though the Chinese government is bound to see this as a transgression.
3) Censorship Still Very Much in Effect on Google.hk
While searches within the Google.hk are not censored by Google, they will still be affected by China's keyword filtering, so some queries won't not get through to google.com.hk search engine, according to censorship expert Nart Villeneuve, who noted:
"Even if a user in China uses search queries that are not filtered by China and retrieves results from Google's .hk version, they will still be affected by China's filtering if they click on the link and try and view those results directly. What's the difference? Users in China will be affected by China's filtering, not Google's. The difference is in the user's experience - instead of retrieving results and carrying on as if censorship did not exist, the user now experiences the censorship first hand."