Google Inc. on Monday evening announced that it would stop censoring the results of its popular search engine in China. The move follows Google’s allegations of cyber-attacks by China in January -- which the Chinese government denied – and subsequent testimonies on the matter by Google, to the United States Congress.

In a statement, Google said that the “sophisticated cyber attacks originating from China”, coupled with evidence that Google uncovered during its investigation into these attacks, suggested that Google Email accounts of “dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties.” However it would continue research and development work in China and maintain its sales presence, Google added.

At a Congressional hearing earlier this month, Google Vice-President, Nicole Wong, had said, “We no longer feel comfortable censoring our search results in China”, adding that Google would “resist government censorship and other acts to chill speech even when that decision is hard.”

The announcement said Google was unwillingness to tolerate these attacks and attempts to further limit free speech on the web in China – including the blocking of social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Blogger – and that it would therefore not continue censoring results on Google.cn.

Non-negotiable

In China, where censorship is a condition of operation, Google said, “The government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement.”

It further added: “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. We will therefore be carefully monitoring access issues, and have created this new web page, which we will update regularly each day, so that everyone can see which Google services are available in China.”

Visitors redirected

Since Google halted self-censorship users visiting Google.cn were being redirected to Google.com.hk, the company said, where uncensored search in simplified Chinese was on offer. “This website was specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong,” Google said. The Hong Kong site had a message describing the website as Google’s new home in China.

Search results on Google.com.hk are uncensored, in keeping with the more liberal laws in Hong Kong. Users in China can now, for the first time, return search results for sensitive subjects that were earlier censored by Google, and continue to be omitted by every search engine operating in China.

For instance a search for “Tiananmen Square protests of 1989” on Google.com.hk returned extensive search results for Internet users on the mainland. However such users were unable to open many of these websites and according to reports searches in Chinese returned no results but only the message, "the connection was reset.”.

Access to politically-sensitive websites is blocked by the extensive system of censorship the Chinese government has in place, popularly known as the “Great Firewall.”

Chinese reaction

Chinese officials on Tuesday attacked the Internet giant for violating the commitment it had made to authorities, when it first launched Chinese-language Google.cn in 2006.

“Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks,” an unnamed official at the Internet governing authority at the State Council Information Office told State-run Xinhua news agency.

"This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicisation of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.”

However, Google’s decision was welcomed by bloggers and rights activists in China, who said the move would help bring more awareness to Chinese Internet users about the government’s censorship policies.

"The best kind of censorship system is when the people don’t know it's in place,” well-known Chinese blogger Michael Anti told The Hindu. “Chinese people want a free Internet, but many are not even aware of what information is being restricted by the government. The fact that they will now be exposed to more information, even if they cannot access is, is a big change in of itself.”

Google’s decision to close its search-engine has also evoked concern among many of China’s 384 million ‘netizens’, who make up the world’s largest Internet market.

“I am more and more worried about the openness of the Internet environment here, and of our society’s as well,” Ethan Yang, a student at Peking University, told The Hindu. Google, which had an estimated 35 per cent share of the search-engine market in China, was particularly popular among college students and younger Chinese.

“I think many of us young Chinese are on Google’s side, and not the government’s,” Mr. Yang added. “Information sharing is the essence of the Internet, and censorship is unreasonable. We know the only reason the government is doing this is because they fear any voice that speaks out against it.”

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