Google has taken perhaps the most courageous step any major corporation has taken in the Internet era, stopping censoring its search services in China, and imperiling a multi-billion business in that country. The rest of the tech industry should follow suit, especially Microsoft and Apple.
Google today announced on its blog that it will no longer censor its search services, including Google Search, Google News, and Google Images on Google.cn. Here's what will happen when someone visits Google.cn, says the blog:
Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong. Users in Hong Kong will continue to receive their existing uncensored, traditional Chinese service, also from Google.com.hk. Due to the increased load on our Hong Kong servers and the complicated nature of these changes, users may see some slowdown in service or find some products temporarily inaccessible as we switch everything over.
The company explains its decision this way:
We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we've facedit's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. 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.
China will become the world's largest Internet market, and in taking this step, Google is endangering its standing there. True, it only has a relatively small market share at this point, but that would have changed over time, and even a relatively small market share of a large market means a lot of revenue.
It's rare that a tech company --- or any company, for that matter --- takes a stand this principled, and Google should be congratulated for it.
Other tech companies, notably Apple and Microsoft, should follow suit, although all signs point to them continuing to cooperate with Chinese censors. As I've written previously, Apple is guilty of kowtowing to Chinese censors by banning Chinese users from downloading iPhone applications that mention the Dalai Lama and the Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.
Microsoft still censors Bing for the Chinese government, and Bill Gates has said that Chinese censorship is "very limited."
Apple and Microsoft are both immensely profitable companies. They don't need to bow down to Chinese censors in order to thrive. Both companies should do the right thing, and follow Google's lead.