US Internet giant Google announced today that it has stopped censoring its search engine’s Chinese version, Google.cn, and is redirecting its mainland China users to its Hong Kong-based search engine Google.com.hk, where uncensored search results are available in simplified Chinese characters.
“The Chinese authorities have chosen to censor rather than open up their Internet,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We can only deplore the fact that the world’s biggest search engine has been forced to close its Chinese version under pressure from the censors. We pay tribute to Google because, by taking this courageous stance, it is creating a real debate on the issue of censorship in China and is betting on a free Internet accessible to all in the mid or long term.
“Above and beyond the case of China, it is the World Wide Web’s integrity that is at stake. The emergence in recent years of national Intranets controlled by repressive governments has in practice turned many Internet users into victims of a digital divide.
“Google is offering an interesting alternative to its Chinese users by redirecting them to its Hong Kong-based servers. It remains to be seen whether the Chinese authorities will now block its search engine and whether Google will be allowed to maintain its sales presence and research and development work in China. Google.cn’s closure nonetheless clearly sends a bad signal to investors.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We now appeal to other Internet companies based in China to take the same road and to refuse to censor their own activities. If a common front is established on this issue, the Chinese government will have no choice but to allow access to a freer Internet.”
Google announced on 12 January that it wanted to stop censoring Google.cn after discovering that cyber attacks had been launched from China against the Gmail accounts of several dozen human rights activists. A score of companies in media, technology and other sectors were also reportedly affected by these hacker attacks and by the theft of intellectual property.
Google senior vice-president David Drummond posted this explanation on Google’s official blog on 12 January: “We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”
Google’s stand has been the source of new tension between China and the United States. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced on 21 January that online free expression would be a US foreign policy priority. The Chinese authorities responded by accusing the United States of interference. The Chinese government media have in recent days accused Google of being manipulated politically by Washington.
China is one of the 12 countries that have been named “Enemies of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders (read the section on China). Google’s withdrawal comes amid growing online censorship in China, which has the world’s most sophisticated system of Internet censorship and surveillance.