Google will expand into China and launch a new search engine compliant with the Chinese government’s strict censorship rules, according to a recent report by The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher. Versions of the app have been called “Maotai” and “Longfei,” and could launch in as soon as six months — once the Chinese government approves the app and its content.
The Chinese government already blocks large amounts of internet content, a practice referred to as the “Great Firewall.” Information about political opponents, western news, free speech, and activism are blocked, as are mentions of “anticommunism.” Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all inaccessible. And perhaps most importantly, so is Google.
Unfortunately, Google’s planned expansion into China does not mark a new era for Chinese Internet access, nor does it even constitute new online freedoms for the Chinese people. Google will comply fully with the Chinese government’s demands, after all. Indeed, the move will only help to strengthen the Chinese government’s hold on the information that enters the country.
We’ve been here before.
In January 2006, Google launched Google.cn, a version of its search engine tailored for Chinese users. The service received considerable backlash: just one month later, a congressional hearing entitled “Internet in China” explored the ethical and political considerations of the search giant’s expansion. The Intercept quotes Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who said that “Google has seriously compromised its ‘don’t be evil’ policy. Indeed, it has become evil’s accomplice.”
Four years later, Google withdrew its service from China. After a series of Chinese-led cyberattacks of American companies (of which Google was one), Google announced that it would close its Chinese offices and end Google.cn. Today, Google.cn simply redirects to Google.com.hk, a version of Google for Hong Kong, which is not directly subject to Chinese government censorship laws.
Ever since Google discontinued Google.cn, Chinese censorship has worsened. Surveillance has become more pervasive, and relations between the United States and China have become more adversarial. For Google to move back into China now, then, is all the more surprising.
Is this pro-freedom, or pro-censorship?
It’s possible to see Google’s decision to expand back into China as a victory for freedom for information. Search engines are designed to make information accessible, and even if some information is omitted, one can argue that the improved access is a net benefit for the user. Furthermore, increased competition in the Chinese search engine landscape will drive additional innovation, resulting in an even better Internet experience for Chinese users.
In June 2016, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced at a conference that “Google is for everyone,” and that “[Google wants] to be in China serving Chinese users.” The unnamed Google employee who leaked Google’s plans to expand to China had this to say in retort: “I’m against large companies and governments collaborating in the oppression of their people.”
“Don’t be evil,” Google quips. But by collaborating with the Chinese government, they are doing just that.
Cover image by Cory Grenier via Flickr (CC-BY-SA).