Internet

Google China: Reshape one's foot to fit into a red shoe.

A few years ago, Internet users trying to access Google.com from mainland China were redirected to a government approved search engine, usually powered by one of the local universities or by a state-owned company.

These days, Google’s international services are normally accessible in China. The definition of normality, however, lies in the hands of the great leaders of the Middle Kingdom. And so, in times of national emergency, services such as Google news, GMail, and other web sites are suddenly inaccessible. In practice, routine events like protests in rural areas, toxic spills, floods, and the spread of Aviary Flu trigger blocks that disrupt access to information and personal communication.

Another thing that most people seem to forget, is that even when they are accessible from China, international search engines don’t always display the same search results to users in mainland China as they would to users in other countries. Search engines take into account each user’s geographical location in order to display the most relevant (and appropriate) search results. For example, a person in California that uses Google to search for “plumber” will see search results and text ads that are relevant to his area. In China, however, this and similar technologies are often used to deny local users access to information, even when using an international web site such as Google.com and Yahoo!. In the past, there have been reports from Chinese users that were not able to get any results for search terms such as “Jiang Zemin”, and even cases when a user’s internet connection would get disconnected for a few minutes or more. Any person living in China knows the feeling.

It is possible that the recent agreement between Google and Chinese authorities, and the consequent launch of Google.cn - hosted in China and catering specifically for the Chinese masses - will put an end to disruptions in access to Google’s international services. It is not less likely, however, that these disruptions will turn into a full block on all Google services not currently hosted within China. Only time will tell. In the mean time, denial of access to international web sites is not uncommon in China, as exemplified by the ongoing block of the BBC’s online news service and the free encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Google’s argument that it is simply complying with local laws, as it does in any other country is fair. It is, however, important to note that local laws in the People’s Republic of China may change arbitrarily at any moment, and even in times of peace and normality, they include articles that would make the “Patriot Act” pale in comparison. This is not Google’s fault, and many other companies (and governments) do business with China in accordance with the same laws.

It is interesting to note that Google has filtered results in compliance with requests from the authorities of democracies in Europe and - probably - America. This earned Google a lot of public criticism in the past. Most critics did not censure Google for denying access to information ( mainly pertaining to racial hatred, pedophilia), but for the clandestine ways in which it has done so. The situation seems to be better today, mainly thanks to the public’s right to protest. A right that Chinese citizens rarely have the pleasure of exercising.

Delivering search results to web surfers is just the thin edge of the wedge. At the end of the day, in China or anywhere else, Google’s core business is to deliver audiences to advertisers. Google is the world’s largest media company, but it would be inaccurate to call it a mass medium. Google provides its advertisers, members of the AdWords network, the ability to publish targeted text ads that are markedly more effective than “traditional”, untargeted, graphic ads. The ads are displayed next to search results on Google main search engine, on pages of other services such as GMail and Google News, and throughout a network of content web sites that are members of Google’s AdSense network. The more targeted and relevant the ads are to the user, the more he is likely to click on them and generate revenue for Google and its affiliate network.

In the past, the ads on display were determined according to the user’s search query ( on Google and Google-powered search engines ) or the content on the page the user was reading ( on the AdSense network ). These days, Google also takes into account information it collects through other services. This includes previous searches through Google, Google-powered search engines, and the Google toolbar, Google News searches and alerts, GMail email messages, and more. Having as much information about its users as possible is one of Google’s basic business imperatives. More information, equals relevant ads, equals higher revenues.

GMail and Google News are not yet available as part of the new Google.cn package, but many Chinese citizens use these services ( when accessible ) on the main Google.com web site. Earlier this week, Google took great pride in refusing to share non-identifying statistical information about user search trends with US authorities. This is Google’s right under the American constitution. In China, that may not be the case. Many internet companies collect information on their users, but none of these companies depends on this information as much as Google does, and nobody does a better job than Google in collecting it. Now, combine that with China’s own tracking and filtering mechanisms. The fact that this is not Google’s fault does not make it any less disturbing.

But not all is gloomy. Chinese Internet users may not have the privilege to easily access information about their leaders, some of their history, and various religious or political groups. With some effort, however, there is plenty of information to be found. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens vent their spleen on personal weblogs and bbs message boards. Despite the latest requirement for every web page author to register with the authorities, vigorous online discussions on anything from (certain aspects of ) rural unrest to the latest Louis Vuitton handbag take place under the Nanny’s open eye.

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