Reasons behind the web giant’s decision still being debated.
“It’s not Google that’s withdrawing from China. It’s China that’s withdrawing from the world.”
In the hours after web giant Google unexpectedly announced it would stop censoring its search-engine in China, this was one of the most widely circulated comments on China’s blogs, posted by a blogger on Twitter.
The statement reflected the anxiety many Internet users in China have expressed this week, faced with the prospect of the world’s biggest Internet company deciding to turn its back on their country.
With 338 million Internet users at last count — and an estimated 46 million more added in the last 12 months — China has the world’s biggest Internet population. In a country where information has been a monopoly of the state for much of its history, the Internet has opened up unimagined possibilities, democratising information and giving citizens a voice.
But this week, for many of China’s “netizens,” Google’s losing battle with the authorities over censorship issues has underscored the limits of opening up.
Moral point questioned
“There is a feeling that the ordinary Chinese Internet user is being ignored,” said Kaiser Kuo, a leading New Media expert in Beijing. “But they are also questioning whether the moral point Google is trying to make is worth the price they have to pay.”
The reasons behind Google’s decision are still being debated. Some have accused the company of dressing up a business decision with noble values. This was, after all, a company that was willing to play by the government’s censorship rules for four years. Others point out that the company did enjoy a sizeable 30 per cent market share, and has had some success in China.
But beyond Google’s decision, the question that China’s Internet users are most concerned with is where this leaves the future of the Internet in China, and what impact this might have on other companies seeking to enter — and shape — China’s information landscape.
“The majority of Chinese Internet users do not have much loyalty to Google, so just let them go,” says the blogger Hrbeu.
“But ordinary people do feel uncomfortable with the way the government is controlling the Internet.”
While Google.cn did censor its results, it did, on the whole, provide greater access to information than other Chinese search-engines like Baidu, according to Rebecca MacKinnon of the Open Society Institute.
Although Google’s decision comes against a general trend of easing controls this past decade — for instance, foreign news websites such as the BBC and CNN are no longer restricted — the past year has seen a new system of controls put in place.
As Mr. Kuo explains, the government no longer worries about access to outside information through Web 1.0 sites, but has closed down social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube that allow for the rapid dissemination of information.
“Among the four most-visited sites in the world are Google, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube,” says one blogger on Caing.com. “We Chinese have already lost the access to three of them, so Google’s disappearance is a tragedy. We are losing the most convenient and advanced communication tools. But where should we go if all the doors to the world are closed?”