Google puts 'ball back in China's court'

Analysts say Google polished its image a bit with Chinese censorship move

After Google Inc. drew a line in the sand more than two months ago, analysts say the company had no option but to stop censoring its search results in China.

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

Google announced yesterday that it had stopped censoring search results in China today. In a blog post, chief legal officer David Drummond said Google had stopped censoring Google Search, Google News and Google Images on the Chinese Google.cn site.

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

Google had taken its lumps for agreeing earlier to follow Chinese law and censor search results there. Monday's move, however, may go a long way to cleaning some of the tarnish from Google's image that came from critics.

"Google is generating a great deal of press for taking on an issue that many in the U.S. care deeply about," said Ray. "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."

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

"You have a choice to follow the laws in the countries where you do business," 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."

Olds, however, said by all accounts he's seen, Google had negotiated 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 added. "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."

And Ezra Gottheil noted that Google appears to have left the door open for future negotiations between the two.

He pointed out that because Google continues to maintain Chinese language sites outside of China, the company would be return for a return at any time.

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

Google first threatened to halt its operations in China after disclosing in January that an attack on its network from inside China was aimed at exposing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

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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