Google, the company, has quietly stopped its practice of displaying warning messages to Chinese users who search for sensitive terms on its service. “At the same time, they deleted the help article which explained how to use the feature,” writes GreatFire.org. “This indicates a new development in the relationship between the Chinese government and Google.”
According to the Guardian, “A Google spokesman confirmed it removed the notification features in December, but declined to comment further due to the sensitivity of the situation in China.”
Could Google be laying the path to reentering the mainland? This is a good thing, right?
You probably already know that many people don’t think so. GreatFire again:
Google has been depicted as a model company that stands up to the Chinese government and upholds its famous motto “Don’t be evil”. This impression reached a climax in May this year when Google introduced a new warning message aimed at users in China. Typing one of the many keywords blocked by the Great Firewall, this message would inform the user that continuing the search would probably break the user’s connection. It was a bold step towards exposing the censorship that the authorities desperately try to hide. At the time, Foreign Policy asked whether in this “second clash between the Internet search giant and the Chinese government, will freedom of speech win?”.
Can we pause here? I get the temptation to anoint allies and saviors in fights against the machine, but Google is and has always been a company, not John Stuart Mill. Many Chinese netizens believe — rightfully, in my opinion — that Google never should have left the mainland in 2010 if it sought to make an actual difference in its professed fight against Internet censorship. Instead, it took a moralistic stance that secured it the gushing praise of American technology writers but scorn and ridicule within China, not to mention a widespread belief that it was pulling out of the market simply because it couldn’t hack it — that crying “censorship” was just its way of saving face.
Google is a company. It’s a company that routinely practices censorship — please look at YouTube and its vague, randomly enforced “community guidelines” — and imposes lamentable policies such as real-name Google-Plus registration. It’s a company that has investors and therefore cares about profit. Can we please — before we get in a habit — drop this idea that it cares about Chinese freedom of speech for China’s sake? Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a few things it cares about more than your and my ability to hop over the Great Firewall, such as, oh, its image, its bottom line, its ability to function, its existence as a company.
Let’s drop the pretense. If it now seems, as GreatFire claims, that “Google’s reputation as a fighter of censorship may not be fully earned,” it’s because we were duped to believe it was a fighter of censorship in the first place. We don’t need it to be, you know. We just need it to be here — like a decent parent — functioning (i.e. not blocked), chipping away at nefarious restrictions instead of trying to topple the entire system, being good in the practical, useful sense.
(Image via GreatFire)
While I agree that Google’s much-vaunted withdrawal from the Chinese market was predicated more on business concerns than censorship (and, let’s be honest here, it is incredibly hard for foreign firms to compete with domestic/state-backed firms due to the playing field being anything but level), I think you’re wrong to dismiss this news as unimportant.
Google’s openness about when it complies with censorship or DMCA takedown requests is something that should be admired and emulated. As the old saying goes, if censorship works, you don’t know you’re being censored.
I don’t think this feature would have kept Google from being approved to re-enter the Chinese market, Google’s highlighting of when search terms were ‘sensitive’ is broadly similar, from a technological standpoint, to Weibo telling you that a certain search query is banned.
The more people are aware of being censored (and this is true outside of China as well, many people are wholly ignorant of how much material is removed because of local restrictions on speech – eg Nazi crap in France and Germany – or copyright law – eg DMCA and similar laws) the better. People will not push for change when they don’t realise they have something to push against.
You are completely correct that Google is a company and not some moral anti-censorship campaigner, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be disappointed that they’ve removed one of the best features at, in your words, “chipping away at nefarious restrictions”.
I want Google to come back to China so my Gmail service won’t be so spotty without a VPN.
“Many Chinese netizens believe — rightfully, in my opinion — that Google never should have left the mainland in 2010 if it sought to make an actual difference in its professed fight against Internet censorship. ”
As an expat netizen, I agree that Google should not have left if it really sought to make an actual difference.
I am/was proud of google for taking a stand. The demands of the censors never end, as we just saw from Southern Weekend. Plus they were targeted for corporate espionage by the government.
Yahoo didn’t leave and even handed over data used to jail a dissident, and look how they are treated. Yeah the search page opens but more often then not the linkouts are blocked so you have to manually extract the address you are trying to go to. Or, the second page of search will be blocked.
As far as business goes, I don’t know all the details but I do know google makes a lot of money from its adwords program in China. Baidu by comparison is a total joke. So leaving was probably not a business decision.
The boss of Baidu, Robin whatever, did make a comment like, ‘oh they didn’t know how to do business in China’ when they left. Man that made me mad, what a wanker. Dude is apparently proud of all the CCP cock he smokes.
Baidu’s search engine is utterly useless so I for one would welcome a return, so that we can actually find stuff without turning on a VPN. Also, I totally agree with RhZ, Baidu’s boss is an absolute “Prussian-born German philosopher most famous for Critique of Pure Reason”, showing off his dad’s expensive car while barely being able to drive stick.
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