Saturday, March 13, 2010

Goodbye Google.cn

It sounds as if there are no more compromises and that the end of Google.cn is imminent.

From The Financial Times:

Image from The New York Times

Google has drawn up detailed plans for the closure of its Chinese search engine and is now “99.9 per cent” certain to go ahead as talks over censorship with the Chinese authorities have reached an apparent impasse, according to a person familiar with the company’s thinking.

In a hardening of positions on both sides, the Chinese government also on Friday threw down a direct public challenge to the US search company, with a warning that it was not prepared to compromise on internet censorship to stop Google leaving.

The signs that Google was on the brink of closing Google.cn, its local search service in China, came two months after it promised to stop bowing to censorship there. But while a decision could be made very soon, the company is likely to take some time to follow through with the plan as it seeks an orderly closure and takes steps to protect local employees from retaliation by the authorities, the person familiar with its position said.

Google is also seeking ways to keep its other operations in China going, although some executives fear that a backlash from the Chinese authorities could make it almost impossible to keep a presence in the country.

Read On
This is a sad story.

Ultimately, Google is doing the right thing. In the past, I've thought that a watered-down Google is better for China than no Google at all. But my opinion on that has changed. China is going to be worse off for not having Google, but given the standoff that occurred in January, I'm happy that Google is taking a stand.

Li Yizhong, the minister for industry and information technology in China, said the following in the article above:
“If [Google] takes steps that violate Chinese laws, that would be unfriendly, that would be irresponsible, and they would have to bear the consequences.”

...

“[Google] has taken 30 per cent of the Chinese search market.

“If you don’t leave, China will welcome that, if you don’t leave, it will be beneficial for the development of the internet in China.”
No, it won't be beneficial for the development of China's internet. The more than western companies kowtow to China, the worse China's internet will be. Foreign internet companies that can act as a pull in the direction of more freedom will in fact be the ones "beneficial to the development of the internet is China."

I understand China's desire for "status quo" and "stability." Yes, the country is transforming quickly. Yes, there are a number of volatile issues within Chinese society. But draconian rules halting the flow of information are silly and childish.

The internet flattens the world. It opens up information that would otherwise be unavailable. It connects people throughout the globe that would otherwise not have the ability to communicate.

Google is the ultimate expression of the internet, organizing the mountains of information out there for users to make sense of. An uncensored Google is not evil. It is beautiful. It's a shame that Chinese people may not have access to this wonderful tool going forward.

From what I understand, Google.cn will go offline and Google's offices in China are about to shut their doors. I'm curious about Gmail and, the international version, Google.com though. I have to imagine that those sites will suffer the fate of Facebook, Blogspot, Twitter, and the whole lot of other blocked sites in China.

13 comments:

Hopfrog said...

I actually read the opposite today. That the two sides were about to work things out. We'll see which pans out.

Again, the whole "you'll bear the consequences!!" by Chinese authorities just wreaks of insecurity. China, you've arrived, relax already.....

Kaer said...

If it does shut its doors, bad news for the people of China and the foreigners relying on it. Good news for VPN/Proxy providers.

The thought of having to switch over to Hotmail or worse, 123 or some other crappy e-mail system that offers nothing else sickens me.

Ramesh said...

China just doesn't get it, when it comes to the Internet.

Hopfrog said...

Ramesh,

subtle, succinct, and 100% accurate.

If they only truly understood, they wouldn't fear the freedoms afforded by the internet. The funny thing is, if there is one thing that will bring about the public unrest that they so fear, it is the clamp down on the internet!

Richard said...

I would just like to note that China certainly gets the Internet, that's exactly why they doing what they are doing. I would also say, having lived here for a while now, I can't see too much public unrest arising over internet censorship anytime soon. Also, will we say the US doesn't get the Internet when in 5-10 years time most high end sites have price tags for access attached to them ? I know I for one that I will then certainly have less access to information than I do now. The internet has been up until now a fairytale story, increasingly it is just going to be representative of national, social, cultural, ideological narratives. In the States access will be dependent on means, less information accessibility if less cash, in China by political control. The same debates will ensue, just some of us will be less able to engage fully.

Hopfrog said...

It may not be now, it may not be in a month, or even a year. But eventually, the public will tire of the restricted access to information.

I would still agree with the statement that China does not get it. Much as China did not get it when they announced the green dam software that was to be installed in new computers. What happened then? Public unrest caused a reversal on that decision, as I believe it will be public unrest that brings about a slowly, but surely, ever loosening internet.

The internet is a free flow exchange of ideas and information that allows people, societies, and countries to advance. When a country doesn't allow this to happen, I would say that country just does not get it. China's higher education and history of scientific advancements (not one nobel prize ever, in anything) are not areas that the world looks to China in admiration of. That will only get worse if the internet remains censored. I would even hypothesize that if the internet remains censored, China's reign as a world superpower, will be a short one.

Mark said...

This is an good debate.

Personally, I don't think China "gets it." The guiding principles of the powers that be in China are restricting the flow of information for self-serving interests. If that is "getting it," then I don't think we're discussing the topic correctly.

The discussion about whether Chinese people really care about these kinds of actions is interesting.

The Green Dam episode is a good citation of them caring.

But I agree with Richard that Chinese people, largely, aren't going to lose much sleep over losing Google. The people angry over Facebook, Blogspot, Twitter, Youtube, etc. and now Google being blocked are largely limited to expats and small groups of more open-minded Chinese people in large cities. The masses, by and large, don't seem to care about these foreign-operated sites being blocked.

Following the reactions to future blockings will be a good barometer of the state of China's netizens' thinking.

Richard, I'm not convinced that a large number of western (or US) sites are going to go pay-for-play. It's true that the internet is not being properly monetized. But up until now, paying for content has not been a viable answer.

I'm not saying such measures won't happen. But I don't think they're inevitable. China continuing to clamp down, though, does seem inevitable.

And even if content on the western internet becomes more pay-based, at least western users would have the option of paying for it. Chinese people wouldn't have the option to go where they want to go. For that reason, I don't think it's really fair to compare the two.

Just like the West can learn a lot from China, Chinese people could, and should, learn a lot from the West. It's very disappointing that China is making its most wonderful resource - its people - blocked off from the rest of the world.

And I agree with Hopfrog that China will be worse off with this kind of stuff happening. Rabid nationalism will more easily flourish. New ideas from outside of China won't be seen or heard.

I find this Google problem and other sites in China being blocked very sad.

Hopfrog said...

"It's very disappointing that China is making its most wonderful resource - its people - blocked off from the rest of the world."

Well said!

Richard said...

I am not making a point about who will be worse off, what is disappointing or what is or is not sad with regard to China censoring the internet- from our perspectives we know the answer to that.

Hopfrog you noted that: "The internet is a free flow exchange of ideas and information..." you went on to draw a conclusion about the beneficial consequences of that free flow of information- fair enough. My point in understanding China, is that it most certainly "gets it" in terms of the internet being a free flow of information- the positives and negatives of that flow of information are not open for debate here, or they are, but only over and above the governments basic requirements of control over certain information.

It was recently expressed by the Chinese scientific community how catastrophic the loss of Google would be in China, on the basis of the lack of access to global research papers. The government also knows this but there is a line they are not going to cross. I am sure if Google censors sensitive political matters in China then the scientists will get all the information they need, if they don't other ways will have to be found, or not. The Chinese government is not going to change over night, so for my money Google and others should hang on in there and hopefully we'll get to see what Hopfrog also notes: " a slowly but surely, ever loosening internet." But be sure, right now, at this moment China gets the Internet and it is exactly what it doesn't want.

Now, with regard the comparison with charging for content, I must disagree with you Mark. This is most certainly a valid comparison because if the internet is a free flow exchange of ideas and information, it is not so when there is a price charged for content. This is not an issue of degree or a debate about the means by which that information is restricted, it is a question about the fact itself, that some people will have less access to information and ideas. On the same day that Hillary Clinton made a speech about Internet freedom the New York Times announced it is going to start charging for content next year, the British Times the same. For along time people were scared to charge as it would isolate them in the market, it needed the dam to break, it does seem that it may have broken. We'll see.

This question though cuts to the heart of both these societies, if we are not careful and I mean this, we may find many people in our own western societies have less access to information than the Chinese people overall. That may seem a ridiculous, thoughtless thing to say but I believe it is a serious consideration.

If you read Clinton's recent speech http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/01/135519.htm and do so with the fact that by this time next year a number of mainstream media outlets will be charging for content and really keep that in mind, it is interesting.

There is also a good discussion here on this topic with The UK Guardian editor: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan/25/guardian-editor-paywall

Hopfrog said...

I see what your saying Richard, I think when we talk about China "getting it" we are talking about different things.

If your saying that China gets it by looking at how Twitter caused practically a revolution in Iran, then I will have to rethink the argument a bit and say that you are correct. Unfortunately, China will have to ask itself at some point, probably this point, if it wants to emulate Iran and North Korea or if it wants to assimilate with the western world. China in my opinion is trying to play two sides of the coin, and that never succeeds.

As far as charging for content, the internet offers so many options that if, say for instance the NY Times, is offering top quality content, then people will be willing to pay for it. I think the internet is vast enough that people without resources will stay be able to access quality content without paying as you go. The internet will always have options. Its not like a local newspaper, where its your only option.

The funny thing about China, is if it just addressed the ugly things in its history, and allowed access to information, I think the Chinese people are probably the most forgiving and accepting people on the planet when it comes to their government. But risking losing access to global scientific research because you want to hide some ugly truths about the past and the present, again, another example of China shooting itself in the foot. Guess what, ALL nations have an ugly past and things in their present which need work. China is no different, and until it addresses these issues, and moves on and eases access to information, it will only be a rich country, not a superpower.

Mark said...

I agree with both of you about "getting it." Yes, China is not following in Iran's footsteps. In that sense, they "get it."

But in a broader sense, which you agree with, Richard, restricting such content is troubling. But you guys have done a great job of discussing this topic, so I'll stop.

As far as pay content goes...

The funny thing about the New York Times going to premium is that they've already tried it. And it failed.

From 2005 until 2007 they had the "Times Select." Here's Wikipedia on that time period:

In September 2005, the paper decided to begin subscription-based service for daily columns in a program known as TimesSelect, which encompassed many previously free columns. Until being discontinued two years later, TimesSelect cost $7.95 per month or $49.95 per year, though it was free for print copy subscribers and university students and faculty. To work around this, bloggers often reposted TimesSelect material, and at least one site once compiled links of reprinted material. On September 17, 2007, The Times announced that it would stop charging for access to parts of its Web site, effective at midnight the following day, reflecting a growing view in the industry that subscription fees cannot outweigh the potential ad revenue from increased traffic on a free site. In addition to opening almost the entire site to all readers, The Times news archives from 1987 to the present are available at no charge, as well as those from 1851 to 1922, which are in the public domain. Access to the Premium Crosswords section continues to require either home delivery or a subscription for $6.95 per month or $39.95 per year. Times columnists including Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman had criticized TimesSelect, with Friedman going so far as to say "I hate it. It pains me enormously because it’s cut me off from a lot, a lot of people, especially because I have a lot of people reading me overseas, like in India ... I feel totally cut off from my audience."

Now, I can't imagine that the Times would hastily go back into premium content after having already experienced failure. They've surely thought long and hard about this and have concluded that a decline in readership is an acceptable cost for their increased revenues from the pay content.

I would not be surprised if this move, again, hurts the Times. They tried being cutting edge on pay content before and it didn't work.

Maybe now is the time to implement such a program. I don't know. But they are, again, part of the first wave of major news organizations making people pay for content. And I would not be surprised if it didn't work again.

But even if the Times going to pay is successful, I believe there will continue to be free news. I agree with Hopfrog that as soon as the Times goes to a pay site, other news organizations are going to be licking their chops ready to take over the former Times readers.

And even if there isn't quality free news, the US and the West will still be better set up than China when it comes to accessing information (assuming we have access to quality pay news). Before the internet, people had to buy newspapers. The fact that people had to pay money to get content wasn't equivalent to not having access at all. The "flow of information" was still way better than not having any access.

Maybe I'm still missing your point, Richard. But I just don't see us at any point being in the position of "many people in our own western societies having less access to information than the Chinese people overall."

Richard.NFX said...

Sorry a bit late getting back to you Mark, amazingly Summer has broken in Xi'an and it has been hot these last few days, been out and about on the bike enjoying this great city- the one you well know.

Now, I was stretching a point to make a point about the Chinese potentially having greater access to information than many people in the West. I think and hope that Hopfrog is probably right that the www will always offer options, if a number of media and general other sites go pay to use, there will be other ways of accessing information.

However, my focus was really on the fact that there could be a large section of western societies that do have quite restricted access to certain information and that it will create greater inequalities and divides in our own societies. Hopfrog made the point that we don't just consult one local newspaper any more and you noted that we did always used to pay for our newspapers. These acknowledgements do in part make up my point. We don't access information as we used to, we take bits and pieces from around the web, we maybe read James Fallows but we don't read the rest of The Atlantic. This means if a large number of those various sites require payment, a large number of people will no longer get the breadth and depth of information they do now. But, some will. This won't be down to any lack of cultural or intellectual curiosity on any bodies part it will be down to the lack of the ability to pay for content. Just recently a few people were discussing an article in The Financial Times, I went to read it but had used up my monthly free quota and thus couldn't.

My point about even hinting that there is the slightest chance that the Chinese could have more free access to information than those outside China, was just to raise, what I see, as very serious concerns within our own societies in terms of educational, cultural and social inequality. Now, of course China may well itself charge for content but leaving that aside for arguments sake, and with politically sensitive topics excluded, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Chinese people could have greater access to the internet itself than many in other countries and that they have access to a greater breadth of content. And that doesn't even include the various hacking tools that may be used by the Chinese to access those pay per view sites in the US!!

I hope it all washes out in the rain and the internet comes out on top and we all "get it", the use Hopfrog originally intended. I am not so sure though. I think this topic is going to run deeper and Hillary Clinton's words will come to be seen as a little short sighted in hindsight. It will be an interesting one to watch and the issues certainly run much deeper than my brief comments here, so that's certainly enough from. Off for a bit of Youku action.

Enjoy the day you guys.

ps. Added Richard.NFX as i saw another Richard also commented on another post that wasn't me.

Mark said...

This has been a good discussion, Hopfrog and Richard. Real high quality stuff.

Richard, I too am concerned about the future of US journalism. I agree that there could be serious problems if things don't get figured out.

One of my favorite sports writers, Bill Simmons, summed it up really well in a column he wrote last year. Here's the snippet I really liked:

"For the past few years, as newspapers got slowly crushed by myriad factors, a phalanx of top writers and editors fled for the greener pastures of the Internet. The quality of nearly every paper suffered, as did morale. Just two weeks ago, reports surfaced that the New York Times Company (which owns the Boston Globe) was demanding $20 million in union concessions or it'd shut down the Globe completely. I grew up dreaming of writing a sports column for the Globe; now the paper might be gone before I turn 40. It's inconceivable. But this Garnett story, and how it was (and wasn't) covered, reminds me of "The Wire," which laid out a blueprint in Season 5 for the death of newspapers without us fully realizing it. The season revolved around the Baltimore Sun and its inability (because of budget cuts and an inexperienced staff) to cover the city's decaying infrastructure. The lesson was inherent: We need to start caring about the decline of newspapers, because, really, all hell is going to break loose if we don't have reporters breaking stories, sniffing out corruption, seeing through smoke and mirrors and everything else. That was how Season 5 played out, and that's why "Wire" creator David Simon is a genius. He saw everything coming before anyone else did."

I have faith that newspapers, or at least organizations that can produce news, will still be around for a long time to come. They still haven't adjusted to the internet well. I think things are going to work out in some fashion though.

But it is an uncertain time and we should be concerned. And if things don't work out well, we'll, as Simmons describes, be in a world of hurt.

Richard, the other Richard that left a note on here recently was Peking Duck Richard. Some seriously quality China bloggers going by Richard out there!