Google’s announcement that it might pull out of China came as quite a shock. We know that things haven’t gone completely smoothly over the past couple of years for the search engine but to threaten to leave the world’s biggest internet user market was certainly an interesting move.
Google said it would cease cooperation with Beijing censors and may close down mainland operations altogether following “highly sophisticated” China-based attacks on its system, and those of some 20 other unnamed firms, in what is claimed to be an attempt to access email accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
The Silicon Valley giant has been getting the shake down from Beijing for ages. In 2009 Google’s main search services were blocked as well as its email service, Gmail, which we now know can be hacked into by Beijing’s nerd herd in its risible crack down on "pornography." Other such victims of China’s obsession with control include Facebook, Youtube and Twitter – but then again, that could have equally been backed by the employers’ union.
Commercially Google has not been a big hit in China, despite the some 300 million users and a burgeoning 3G market. The company has simply not been able to compete with domestic search mainstay Baidu which controls 60% of the search sector against Google’s meagre 20%.
Free speech advocates are hailing Google’s decision to no longer hit head at Chinese censors’ feet and abandon its self-imposed ban on certain key searches e.g. a particular summers’ evening in the late 1980s, a type of Andean sheep-type chappy, on its Chinese language site.
Freedom of expression is a perennial issue and one that really gets Western politicians‘ heads shaking and undergrads’ pens scribbling, but is a very real, and very serious issue within China’s borders, as it is in other countries whose governments fear too rapid a pace of change.
How much did free speech and security of information really factor in Google’s threat to shut up shop? And for crying out loud, how many times are some of us going to have to keep changing our email addresses?