HONG KONG—Google is redirecting China-based traffic to its uncensored Hong Kong Web site, according to a message posted on the company’s official blog. Two months ago the Internet giant threatened to leave the country because of censorship and Chinese hacker attacks.
Google had been negotiating with Beijing about the right to continue hosting a search service in China without filtering results according to Chinese law.
“Earlier today we stopped censoring our search services" for China's 400 million Internet users, the company blog said.
"Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong,” chief legal officer David Drummond wrote.
China requires Internet service providers to censor words and images that the ruling Communist Party says are illegal or unacceptable.
Google said it plans to maintain its engineering and sales offices in China to keep a technological foothold there and continue to sell ads for the Chinese-language version of its search engine in the United States.
The Google blog entry said the Chinese government had been “crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement” for continuing its business in China.
“We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services,” Drummond wrote, adding that the company would continue monitoring accessibility in China and posting the results daily.
The decision comes after more than two months of negotiations after Google announced that it, along with more than 20 other companies, had been the victim of cyberattacks originating from China.
Google said its ensuing investigation into the attacks uncovered evidence that the Gmail accounts of “dozens” of human rights activists connected with China were being accessed by third parties through phishing scams and malware installed on their computers.
It said the attacks and surveillance that the investigation uncovered—combined with government efforts to further limit free speech on the Internet through the blocking of Web sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube—led the company to conclude that “we could no longer continue censoring our results on Google.cn.”
Netizens demand transparency
China’s netizens, who make up the world's largest online market, have been awaiting a final decision from Google on its future plans in the country.
On Sunday, a document appeared on the Internet urging both sides to publicize their talks and charging both with having ignored the interests of Chinese netizens.
Titled “An Open Letter to the Chinese Government and Google Inc.,” and written in Chinese, the appeal expressed the frustration of Internet users, who said they felt left in the dark on the deal.
The letter listed how Chinese netizens have reacted to various incidents involving Google’s business operations in China since 2002, in particular referring to the company’s “tacit understanding” with Beijing in censoring Chinese cyberspace.
It said Chinese netizens have been stakeholders in the outcomes of these events, and are entitled to be a part of discussions. The letter also called for more transparency on the status and detail of the negotiations.
U.S.-based internet technology expert Du Dongjin, one of the letter’s authors, said Google’s decision concerns “Chinese netizens as well as long-term cyber-development in China.”
“There is no organization in China that can guarantee the interest of netizens. As a member of that constituency, I wish to speak out and to cause widespread repercussions,” Du said.
“The spat between the Chinese government and Google is currently being handled through secret negotiations. We hope it can proceed in a more transparent way, allowing both netizens and citizens to participate, and can be settled in a responsible manner,” Du urged.
Questions left unanswered
The open letter raised several questions about what content the Chinese government required Google to self-censor.
“Aside from sex, violence, and gambling, what else was included? How was censorship decided for topics such as mining disasters, the brick-kiln slave children, ..., violent evictions, the tainted milk powder, the waitress who stabbed a sex-demanding official, the Hubei provincial governor’s confiscation of a journalist’s recorder and other incidents,” the letter asks.
“We cannot accept this violation of the population’s right to access such matters of public interest,” it states.
The open letter immediately attracted the attention of Chinese netizens and was re-posted more than 1,000 times on blogs and microblogging platforms.
"For the last several years, Google has yielded to pressure from the government. All of its dealings were murky," one posting said. "Now the company has made its stand clear, so it should inform the public about its dark past."
Postings on popular Chinese content sites sina.com, baidu.com, and sohu.com were deleted by Monday.
Beijing-based cyber-technician Ning Meng said China’s complex system of filters, blocks, and self-censorship practices used to uphold the government’s “Great Firewall” of Internet controls, is not in itself a problem, but questioned Beijing’s process of deciding what to censor.
“The key issue here is the censorship. The censorship process should be open, transparent, and regulated, so the people can understand what content [the government] is censoring,” he said.
Former Peking University professor Jiao Guobiao called the posting of the letter courageous.
“The importance of the open letter is that now China’s netizens and citizens are daring to challenge sensitive issues, even in the face of danger,” he said.
“At present, we can see that people are continuously rushing to the front of the fight, putting tremendous pressure on China’s rulers. I’ve been shocked by this new situation.”
Original reporting by Xin Yu for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Ping Chen. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.