It was eight years ago that Google exited China, and now it has been confirmed by anonymous sources that they are attempting to head back. To say that this is a controversial decision is an understatement. Google dropped their “Don’t Be Evil” motto back in 2015, and with this decision to re-enter China seems to have finalized the split. But business is business, and this is certainly a business decision, simple as that.
Why is it controversial?
The internet in China is very different from the rest of the world. The so called “Great Firewall of China” is said to employ 2 million people in their censorship efforts. Many Western sites are banned, such as New York Times, Wikipedia, Facebook, Google (currently), among many others. Anything that mentions the countries’ dark past (Tianamen Square, for example) is blocked. When news of dissent of any kind enters the public discussion, new blocks are put in place. For example, when Chinese president Xi Jinping scrapped term limits, effectively making himself President for life, censors banned phrases such as “disagree”, “shameless”, and “lifelong.” With over 700 million internet users, the Chinese government has, in effect, set up a parallel internet which is entirely controlled and manipulated according to their own standards. Freedom of speech and freedom of information, two of the basic concepts of the internet for most of us, do not exist to Chinese netizens.
When Google left China in 2010, the decision was pushed by founder Sergey Brin. He had grown up in Soviet Russia, and personally experienced what state censorship was like. But even then, Google had left after facing tough competition from Chinese rival Baidu. It seems as though the allure of 700 million potential users is too great to ignore, however, so Google is heading back for another shot. They’ll be playing by China’s rules though, as does every company that would like to operate in the Chinese space.
What does it mean for the internet?
The reality is that it probably does not mean much, not for Google, nor for the Chinese people themselves. By the time Google left China in 2010 their market share was in the teens, having fallen from around 30% at its peak. 8 years later, Baidu’s entire ecosystem dominates the Chinese market, with their search traffic now holding over 80%. It has close ties to the Chinese government, and even contributes to building course curriculum at Chinese schools. Google will face an uphill battle to gain market share, especially since they will probably be rolling out a limited version of their product suite. Even if Google does manage to make some inroads, the Chinese government is incredibly fickle, and has shut down websites and businesses for seemingly minor violations of their rules.
The Chinese people will continue on in their censored and highly-controlled version of the internet. Google has so far not made any official statements, so it remains to be seen when their contribution to the Great Firewall of China will begin.