Widgets Magazine

Google shuts down China-based search service

Following a week of anxious speculation, the jury is still out on the political and economic ramifications of Google’s decision last Monday to close its search service in China. Google has redirected its Chinese Web users to an uncensored search engine situated in Hong Kong for the past week.

This development comes after the Internet giant said that it was one of at least 20 corporate victims in a sophisticated cyber-attack originating in China last year. Google also experienced tensions with China due to government censorship issues.

In January, Google announced on its blog, “These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered — combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web — have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.”

These stumbling blocks led the company to stop censoring results on its Chinese Web site, Google.cn, earlier this year and, more recently, to shut down the site in China.

While Google’s business in China comprises a small fraction of the company’s annual net profit — some experts estimate one to two percent — it is possible that the company will face more profound economic effects in the long run.

Google spokespeople did not return requests from The Daily for comment.

Stanford visiting fellow Duncan Clark and sociology professor Xueguang Zhou, both of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), shared their opinions on Google’s move via e-mail.

“Google exits China at a critical juncture as China moves onto the world stage and as Google is gaining momentum in the Chinese Internet market,” Zhou said. “I am afraid this will cost Google dearly in the long run, as it takes time and experience to rebuild the customer base, relative to other competitors.”

An expert on China’s Internet policies, Clark said the closing of the site is likely to impact three areas: search business, commercial activities and partnerships, and research and development.

Though Chinese Web users are still able to access Google through the Hong Kong host site, Clark speculated that the Chinese government could disable routing to that domain if it so desired. Such an action would impact the “commercial viability of the site.”

According to Clark, another concern is that Google’s move could have a detrimental impact on its Android mobile phone platform.

“No company can win globally in mobile devices or OS without being strong in China . . . we have yet to see how much government will punish Google in this area,” Clark said.

But China does not want to drive out Google hires in research and development, Clark added. The Google partnership has been a valuable source of jobs in China.

But business is not the only issue on the table; critics and proponents alike have focused on the political repercussions of Google’s new position.

“By taking a stance on freedom of information, Google certainly gains politically in those markets outside China,” Zhou said. “However, this approach may inadvertently impede political development in China as the educated are more likely to be the advocates for freedom of information and use Google to communicate and transmit information. Google’s exit will be especial painful for them.”

“It just gives the West a reminder that the rise of China isn’t correlated — at least so far — with increased transparency and pluralism in the political arena,” Clark added.

For human rights activists like Tenzin Seldon ’12, Google’s decision is blessing in disguise. Seldon, who works for Students for a Free Tibet, discovered that her Gmail account was infiltrated by Chinese hackers last year.

“I applaud Google for sticking to its decision to not censor information,” Seldon said. “This is a great victory on their part . . . I think this will be a huge precedent for other companies in America.”

“We live in an age of globalization where the Internet is the key to how we interact with one another,” Seldon said.

Like Zhou, Seldon acknowledged that the move to shut down Google’s search engine in China may have a negative impact on Chinese political dissidents who already find it difficult to access information from outside the country.

However, for Seldon, the long-run benefits of this development outweigh the costs.

“I think eventually they will find other avenues and this will just bring a new awakening within the dissidents who will then, I think, mobilize the people to stand up against the government,” Seldon said of activists based in China.

“From my point of view and from the point of view of activists, we believe that if Google wants to do business in China, it cannot censor information,” Seldon said. “And if it wants to comply with Chinese laws, then it should not stay there.”