China and Google: 16 hours later

I’m a little late to the game, but earlier today Google announced it was no longer willing to censor search results on google.cn,  threatening to eventually pull out of the PRC altogether. Google said this followed Chinese hackers attacking Gmail servers, with the intention of infiltrating accounts of human rights activists in the PRC.

Netizens and commentators typed on overdrive in response to the move. According to Rebecca MacKinnon, Google sent “a very public message – which people in China are hearing – that the Chinese government’s approach to Internet regulation is unacceptable and poisonous.”

Fears for the future of China’s cybersphere also rang around the FT. Internet commentator Xie Wen told the paper,

We are not allowed to play along with Web 2.0. Maybe the Chinese will become second-class citizens of the internet world. That is a real possibility. To put it more straightforward, some want to transform the internet into a national intranet.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the long censored Danwei, wrote with pragmatism on The Guardian’s CiF pages:

China’s internet does not meet international standards. Without Google, there is no way to pretend that it does. (…) As someone who agreed with Google’s reasoning when it entered China, I also support this move. If it cannot operate here in accordance with its global standards, it should leave.

But cynicism was also in full swing. Evgeny Morozov wasn’t buying the argument that cyberattacks forced Google to rethink its China policy. He said,

Google was in need of some positive PR to correct its worsening image (especially in Europe, where concerns about privacy are mounting on a daily basis). Google.cn is the goat that would be sacrificed, for it will generate most positive headlines and may not result in devastating losses to Google’s business  (Google.cn holds roughly 30 percent of the Chinese market).

One positive outcome, for rival search engine Baidu at least, is that its shares have soared by 16.6% in the past few hours. Sina has followed suit with a 4.9% rise, whilst Google dropped by just over 2%.

As Charles Arthur, technology editor of The Guardian, claims, it would be nice to believe today’s events will put an end to China’s sophisticated censorship. But, as both he and Gady Epstein have reminded us, let’s not be naive: 2009 saw an unprecedented building up of the Great Firewall, and Google’s admittedly daring move isn’t going to chisel away at these bricks.

Web 2.0. has provided the privileged and passionate few who make up China’s online dissidents and activists with the chance to create a semblance of civil society. Yet, while the expansion of the online public sphere, with the help of proxies and VPNs, may continue, the democratic reform it seeks to achieve is still too far off in the distance to be visible.