Ever since Google’s January 2010 decision to cease censorship of its Chinese-language search engine, the world has watched closely to see what would happen next. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game of information repression and dissemination represented a serious challenge to the ability of the Internet to remain free and open in the face of totalitarian government censorship. Would Google cease all operations in China? Would China block access to Google altogether?
These questions came to a climax on June 30, when Google’s license to operate as an Internet Content Provider (ICP) from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology was up for renewal. The days surrounding that deadline were full of complicated signals and maneuvers. First, on June 28, Google carefully walked back an aspect of its anti-censorship policy by requiring Chinese users to specifically choose an uncensored search portal, rather than sending them to it automatically (the full implications for users are not yet known). Later, on July 5, no official word had yet been issued as to the status of Google's license -- but observers noticed that what appeared to be an ICP license number had nonetheless been posted on Google.cn.
Finally, on July 9, it was officially announced that China had renewed Google’s license after all, and that unfiltered searches at Google.com.hk from China apparently remain unfiltered. It's a great victory, both for the people of China and for the free and open Internet. Access to unfiltered search is the gateway to the networked public sphere and the openness of the Internet. In practice, nothing has changed in that many Chinese citizens interested in circumventing the Great Firewall were already able to do so through the use of proxy systems such as Tor. It is the ceremonial acceptance of Google's workaround as nominally adhering to Chinese law that exposes the censorship regime's vulnerability.
Despite this, many remain critical of Google's decision to stay in China. Speculation abounds about whether Google made additional concessions to the Chinese government and about their commercial ambitions for a music service, its mobile phone business, and Chinese-language advertising opportunities.
As Anupam Chander points out in his recent article Googling Freedom, dismissing these historic developments as mere profit maximization strategy misses important lessons for corporate responsibility and human rights, especially regarding Internet technologies. Dissecting the extent to which Google still has ties with China neglects the differences between divestment strategies of removing assets and the communication aspects of Internet access services. It underestimates the impact that information and communication technologies have for enabling the individual self-help to resist the state. The fact of the matter is that Google has remained faithful to principled engagement and its commitments to the Global Network Initiative principles.
As the global flows of information smash against the Great Firewall of China, Google.cn’s license renewal may very well mark a significant recognition by Chinese censors that their dams will have to be built differently. Could they have recognized inevitable defeat of their censorship regime in the face of Internet search at their borders and decided to focus their efforts elsewhere? The confrontation is certainly far from over and this event a postponement, as the power wielded by the Chinese censorship regime is constant in its blocking, surveillance, and cyber attacks.
Further clues as to the Chinese Government's new cyber-strategy can be found in a paper released last week by the China Academy of Social Sciences, which is backed by the Communist Party Government. That paper identified social networking sites as being at the center of China’s new media plans, and also claimed Facebook and other sites are vessels for US military political subversion.
For those Chinese citizens seeking Surveillance Self-Defense from the Great Firewall of China, the availability of proxy servers, anonymizers, P2P file sharing services, encrypted VoIP, and VPNs are commonplace. We hope more companies will also do their part in preserving the Global Internet in China.