Back in February Google discovered that dozens of human rights activists with Gmail accounts were routinely being hacked and accessed by third parties in China via phishing scams. Google said when combined with the country's attempts to "further limit free speech on the web" it would be no longer willing to censor its own content and services if no compromise was found. Was Google really ready to risk enraging the Chinese government? We got the answer late last night: an emphatic yes!
"Earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Google.cn," said Google chief legal office David Drummond on the company's official 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."
"Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard," Drummond admitted. "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 faced—it'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."
In the meantime Google has set up a Mainland China service availability page which keeps a check of which services the Chinese government allows, blocks or partially blocks. At present YouTube, 'Sites' (presumably search?) and Blogger are blocked with Docs, Picassa and Groups partially blocked.
Unlike the rest of the World, use of the Google search engine is small in China so it is doubtful whether the attention this story has received elsewhere will be seen as a particularly big deal there - let alone reported as such. For Google's part though, we would agree that free speech is something very much worth fighting for. On the other hand, whether Google's chosen course of drastic action is the best one is another question entirely...