Google's stand on China's censorship a 'brave move'

News analysis: After drawing a line in the sand, Google's image gets a bit of a polish

After drawing a line in the sand more than two months ago, industry analysts say Google had no other option but to stop censoring search results in China.

And the company will look all the better for it, analysts contend.

"Google is putting its money where its mouth is with this move, staying true to its principles and following through on their earlier rhetoric," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc.

"It was definitely a brave move, and one that will garner them some positive attention for a change. Users worldwide will now feel like they can trust Google as an honest broker of information," Olds said.

Google announced on Monday that it had stopped censoring search results in China as of today. The company stopped censoring Google Search, Google News and Google Images on Google.cn, David Drummond, the company's chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post.

"Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard," Drummond wrote. "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."

People using Google.cn are now redirected to Google.com.hk, where they are given uncensored search results in simplified Chinese. Google is running Google.com.hk off of servers located in Hong Kong.

"Google made a smart move," said Augie Ray, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "Rather than unilaterally pulling out, they took an action that puts the ball back into China's court."

"While Google feels redirecting Chinese users to their Hong Kong site and search results is 'entirely legal,' it seems unlikely the Chinese government will see this as anything other than an attempt to bypass their laws and direction. Given the impasse that Google and China came to on the issue of censorship, this move by Google seems a little less brave than inevitable," Ray said.

Google had taken its lumps for agreeing earlier to follow Chinese law and censor search results in China. That wasn't a popular move with critics in the West.

Monday's move, however, may go a long way toward cleaning some of that tarnish off its image. "Google is generating a great deal of press for taking on an issue that many in the U.S. care deeply about," Ray said.

"Their actions cannot hurt their reputation in the West, but it remains to be seen if improved reputation equates to any particular business benefit. In the end, it seems Google did not take this action primarily to generate goodwill but because they believed it was the right thing to do for their culture, vision and business," he added.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said that saying it won't follow Chinese law may play well in the U.S., but not every country will look upon it so happily.

"You have a choice to follow the laws in the countries where you do business, choose not to do business in those countries or break the law," said Enderle.

"Google has apparently decided to break the law. The law they are breaking isn't popular with the West. On the other hand, most governments don't particularly want to reward companies that break laws. It might become a habit. This will do a lot of damage to their potential in China and likely make other governments nervous about them," he said.

Olds, however, said that by all accounts he has seen, Google seemed to negotiate in good faith with China. "There is simply too much distance between what China will tolerate in terms of freedom and what Google was willing to do," he said. "Faced with the choice of buckling to China's demands or controlling its own business and destiny, it wasn't really much of a choice at all."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., noted that Google seems to have left the door open for future negotiations with China. He pointed out that Google is continuing to maintain Chinese language sites outside of China, lending credence the idea that the company and China could come together again in the future.

"Well, the door was open before, and there's no reason for it to shut completely now," Gottheil said.

Google first threatened to halt its operations in China after disclosing in January an attack on its network from inside China that was aimed at exposing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. At the time, Google also said it was reconsidering its willingness to censor search results of users in China as required by the government.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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